Rebekah Took Her Veil and Covered Herself (Genesis 24)
In Genesis 24 we read the account of the marriage between Issac and Rebekah. Abraham (Issac’s father) had sent his servants to the land of his fathers to find a wife for Issac. His servants went as Abraham instructed and prayed for something specific for the Lord to do, to show them which woman would become Issac’s wife. The Lord answered that prayer and Rebekah was shown to be that woman. After they all spoke with her family and received their blessing, Rebekah goes back with Abraham’s servants to meet Issac and become his wife. Later on, Issac is in the field meditating when he looks up and sees people approaching on camels. He starts walking towards them which leads Rebekah (who is on one of the camels) to ask “Who is that man walking in the field to meet us?” (Gen 24:65). One of the servants tells her that it’s his master, the one who will be her husband. It is at this point where “she took her veil and covered herself.” (Gen 24:65) Once she did this “Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife…” (Gen 24:66)
Since this is an early Biblical record of a woman veiling herself, many wonder how this relates to Paul’s instructions about head covering in 1 Corinthians 11. Before we answer this question we must first review a fundamental principle of Biblical interpretation.
Prescriptive or Descriptive
Whenever we’re trying to understand the proper meaning of a biblical text, one determination that needs to be made is if the verse in question is prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive means that an action is commanded whereas descriptive only tells us what took place. As an example, the statement, “take out the trash” is prescriptive as it’s a command to take an action. The statement “Johnny took out the trash” is descriptive, as it’s telling us what happened. Now a descriptive sentence by itself doesn’t tell us why it’s happening, only that it did. For example, Johnny could have taken the trash out because his father instructed him too. If that were the case, the descriptive sentence “Johnny took out the trash” could be showing us how he followed his dad’s instruction. But, it’s also possible that Johnny did it for other reasons. The context will need to provide the why behind any descriptive passages.
Let’s now look at two different verses on church gatherings and try to determine if they’re prescriptive or descriptive. Our first example comes from the book of Acts which describes a late-night church meeting.
“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” (Acts 20:7).
In this passage we see that the church gathered together on the first day of the week and Paul gave an extended speech until midnight. The question is, does this describe what happened or is it a command to meet together on the first day of the week? You may be tempted to say it’s a command because you’re familar with what the rest of the Bible teaches on this topic. However, we’re dealing this passage in isolation, trying to determine what it’s telling us apart from any other Scriptures. When we look at it, we see that the structure of this passage is narrative–it’s telling us what happened, not what we must do. We know this because there are no “action” commands in this passage like “do this”, “must not” or “instruct them to”. It only gives us a description of what took place. Other Scriptures could prescribe practices that are only described here, but the point is there is nothing commanded in this passage. So now that we know that it’s a descriptive sentence we must now look to the rest of the New Testament to see if what is described here, is a command for us. In this case, there is a command for believers to meet together and it’s found in the book of Hebrews.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)
In this passage the author tells us to “hold fast”, “let us consider how to” and he says “not neglecting”–all of which tell us that it’s something for us to do. These various action commands inform us that this passage of Scripture is prescriptive (a command), not descriptive (describing what happened). So while the late-night church meeting we looked at in Acts 20:7 is descriptive, it’s showing us how a command looks when it’s obeyed. Descriptive passages can be emulated if the practice is prescribed elsewhere. Throughout the book of Acts we see examples of believers sharing the Gospel and caring for the poor. These are to emulated because they’re commanded for all believers in other passages (Matt 28:19, Matthew 25:35–40). Whereas Jesus saying, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) is descriptive of His own situation. There are no other passages which command believers to be homeless, so he didn’t say that as an example for us to emulate.
Should Women Emulate Rebekah?
Now that we have had a refresher on prescriptive vs. descriptive, let’s head back to Genesis 24 and make a determination on what sort of passage this is.
“Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, camels were coming. Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from the camel. She said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field to meet us?” And the servant said, “He is my master.” Then she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her…” (Gen 24:63-67)
This passage is a historical narrative, meaning it’s describing an actual event that took place. As we look closer we notice that there are no action-commands in this section. There are no do’s-or-don’ts in this passage, which tells us that it’s not prescriptive. So before we decide if it’s something that’s intended for us to emulate, we must first see why Rebekah was veiling herself. Was she following a command or was there a different reason? When we look throughout the book of Genesis (and even the entire Old Testament) we see that there are no commands for women to veil themselves. This means that this passage wasn’t intended for us to emulate. Therefore, we must conclude that Rebekah veiling herself was a cultural practice. The command for women to cover their heads was not given during Rebekah’s time. It was given for the first time thousands of years later in 1 Corinthians 11, under a completely different covenant 1) This is significant because with the changing of covenants there’s also a change in rules and regulations (Heb 7:12, 8:13) . So because the practice of head covering was first issued during the “new covenant”, we can conclude that it was only a command once the covenant was initiated. Head covering is prescriptive for the church today, it was not so for Rebekah.
- Prescriptive sentences are commands to take an action. In the Bible, the command could be for someone specific, or for all believers.
- Descriptive sentences tell us what happened, not what needs to happen.
- Descriptive sentences can help show us what it looks like when a command is obeyed, if the practice is prescribed elsewhere.
- There are no commands for women to veil themselves in Genesis or anywhere elsewhere in the Old Testament.
- Because Rebekah veiling herself isn’t based on a command, we must conclude that for her, it was a cultural practice.
- Head covering is prescriptive for the church today (1 Cor 11:2-16). It was not so for Rebekah as commands can’t be imposed retroactively.