Want to find your signifiant other in the Biblical text? Hang out by a well! With the well itself serving as a symbol of fertility and the act of drawing water emblematic of a forming spousal bond, this scene repeats over and over in Torah.
In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant finds Rebekkah for Isaac. In Genesis 29, Jacob meets Rachel. And in Exodus 2, this week’s Torah portion, Moses find Zipporah. Each meeting is more or less the same…but it is the subtle differences that illustrate the beauty of Torah.
In Genesis 24, Isaac is completely absent; it is a servant who acts on his behalf. Quite appropriate for his role as a patriarch, right? Whether in the story of the Akeidah or the Blessing of Esau and Jacob, his whole story is about others acting upon him while he remains passive. It’s also the only text where a woman brings forth water from the well, perhaps showing Rebekkah’s initiative we will seem time and again.
In Genesis 29, Jacob finds a well in a field rather than near the city, setting up the conflict between shepherd and agrarian ethics. It’s also interesting to note the presence of a well cover in this story and this story alone, a stone that might foreshadow Jacob’s using a stone as a pillow and also a marker when encountering God.
The writing in Exodus 2 is even more beautiful. The shortest of the well scenes, Moses saves the women involved — just as he saved the Israelites — and rhetorical emphasis is placed upon his drawing of water. Whether because he himself was drawn from the water — see what they did there? — or that he would later draw water for the Israelites, these subtle difference from the other well scenes set up Moses as the hero of our story.
For more on this way of reading the text, check out “The Art of Biblical Narrative” by Robert Alter.