Eliezer develops a heuristic to identify the right girl: if he asks for water for himself, and the girl at the well offers water for him and for his camels, he will know â€œYou have done kindness [hesed] with my masterâ€. When he realizes in 24:27 Rebecca is the one he has been seeking Eliezer gives thanks: â€œBlessed be the Lord, God of my master Abraham, Who has not left off His steadfast kindness [hasdo] toward my masterâ€¦.â€ Finally, in 24:49, when negotiating the terms of Rebeccaâ€™s betrothal to Isaac, Eliezer tells her family, â€œAnd so, if you are going to ask with steadfast kindness [hesed] toward my master, tell me, and if not, tell me, that I may turn elsewhere.â€
What is the importance of hesed to this story? Why is the word used four times by Eliezer? Eliezer recognizes that only hesed can repair the ruptures in the house of Abraham.
For Abraham the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, threatens Godâ€™s covenant that his descendants will be like the stars of the sky. Then the need to purchase the grave site from the Hittites makes a mockery of Godâ€™s promise of the land to him (Meir Sternberg cited by Robert Alter). These two promises were the heart of the covenant. Eliezer recognizes that the idea that Isaac might not find a wife, and might not help fulfill the covenant, would be simply too much for Abraham to bear. He begs for hesed on behalf of his master that the covenant with God not be undermined again.
For Isaac the rupture is more personal and familial than covenantal. His father just attempted to murder him in a ritualistic human sacrifice of precisely the type the God of Abraham supposedly rejected. And he has also just lost his mother. Rashi, drawing on midrash, connects the Akeda to Sarahâ€™s death, which was â€œa result of the news of the Akedaâ€”that her son had been fated for slaughter and had been all-but-slaughtered. Her soul flew away and she died.â€ A tradition cited by Rashi says Isaacâ€™s â€œashes remained piled on the altarâ€. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes that â€œwhat happened at the Akeda cannot be neutralized, though the sacrifice is not literally consummated. The burden of the â€˜all butâ€™ condition is assumed by Sarah, who consummates its meaning in her howls and her death.â€ Of course Sarahâ€™s death silences the howls the midrash places in her mouth. For Isaac, they continue and are only amplified by the loss of his mother.
If finding Isaac a wife from the right place and fulfilling the covenant was Eliezerâ€™s expression of hesed for Abraham, finding the right wife was the hesed Isaac needed. What made Rebecca right for Isaac was her own hesedâ€”as expressed by her giving water to the camels as well as the people. Eliezer constructs his camel-watering test because he recognizes that only hesed will console Isaac. As Zornberg writes, â€œHis main criterion for the rightness of Rebeccaâ€™s election is that he will sense in her the hesed that, since the Akeda, has been lacking from his masterâ€™s experience.â€ Eliezer was right. Verse 24:67 tells us: