I see people all the time talking about Rivkah being three years old, as is brought down by Rashi, being “just a medrash”. People deny that it has any basis in peshat, that its purely a midrashic reading, even that it ought to be taken figuratively. I have even see people say that Rashi and medrash in general ought to be discarded for saying such disturbing things like Rivkah being three years old.
I think this approach is wrong.
Outright dismissing the Medrash that says Rivkah was three, or ascribing it figurative meaning, or any other approach that relegates the idea to drash instead of peshat, is not only, I think incorrect, it is more educationally dangerous.
There are some sound textual reasons for concluding Rivkah was 3 years old.
- Her nurse coming with her (24:59)
- The quick succession of Akedah, Birth of Rivkah, and Death of Sarah in the narrative could lead one to plausibly assume they happened in quick succession chronologically as well. That would place Yitzchak’s age at the Akedah at 37. 25:20 tells us Yitzchak was 40 when he married Rivkah. That would then place Rivkah’s age at 3. Put into the larger context of Chazal trying to establish an exact chronology for the events of Bereishit, Rivkah being 3 is the puzzle piece that fits, even if it looks funny.
Chazal, when saying Rivkah is 3 years old, are interpreting the data they see in the text, perhaps impassively so. To say they are doing any more than that is, if I may be blunt, to call them perverts who seek to convey moral messages by the sexualization of a toddler. Such implications are infinitely more dangerous than the other alternative, which is, Chazal didn’t necessarily have the right peshat.
Some compelling textual reasons to say Rivkah is not 3 years old:
- All the shlepping and feeding and drawing water is rather beyond a 3 year old.
- Perhaps this is too drash-y, but in 24:58, she is asked for her consent in going with the servant. If she is under 12, she does not have da’as and her consent doesn’t work. (The more lomdish among you can quibble, its just a thought, though a weak one)
- There are reasons to doubt Chazal’s exact chronology. Ibn Ezra’s point about the Akeidah, that if Yitzchak was 37, why is it a test for Avraham? What about the guy whose neck is on the line, literally? is well taken, (though R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, k’darko bakodesh, gives a psychologically astute defense of this chronology). Based on this reasoning, and the fact that we see Yitzchak able to carry wood and talk and stuff, which makes him a little older, Ibn Ezra places his age at “close to 13” which I think is correct. Yitzchak is referred to as a na’ar, which I think should place him under Bar Mitzvah. You don’t have to buy that, particularly, but I think saying Yitzchak was preteen or early teens is a reasonable peshat explanation. Fine. You would then run into other chronology problems. People smarter than me could figure that out.
I’d rather Chazal have a justifiable but not necessarily correct peshat ( edit: that was advanced on purely technical grounds) than be perverts. Doing so has the danger of further eroding respect for rabbinic authorities throughout the generations.