A congregant asked me if I believe that Rivka was really 3 years old when she married Isaac, as some commentators suggest. This is my answer.
Rashi likes to play number games with the ages of people given in the Torah. I am not completely convinced that Rashi takes the numbers literally, as much as he sees them as literary devices. But perhaps he did take them literally, nobody can know for sure.
I am inclined to believe that Rashi did not take the numbers literally, mostly because I was influenced by professor Meir Bar Ilan and I do not take these numbers literally. I have such immense respect for Rashi’s work that I find it hard to believe he did. Although there are many Rabbis and others that do.
It is important to know that it is not a violation of a tenant of faith or of Orthodox Jewry to understand the outlandish ages of the forefathers as being literary devices. There were many great Rabbis over the ages who did not take them literally.
According to what Rashi writes (based on a 2nd century text called seder olam) Sara died as a consequence of hearing about the binding of Isaac. That would make Isaac 37 at the time of the binding. There are many commentators who take issue with this, as it seems that Isaac was a little boy at the time. (The 15th century commentator Abravanel says that had Isaac been older he would have been obligated to fight Abraham and resist the binding, as it was not he who was commanded and he would be obligated to save his own life, even at the hands of his father claiming that God told him to do this.)
Rashi also says, based on the juxtaposition of passages, that Rebecca was born right after the binding of Isaac. This week’s parshah says that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebecca. That would make Rebecca 3.
There are many commentators, even some who take the ages literally, who object to this. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that Rebecca was born earlier, and we are only told about her birth after the binding of Isaac because that is when it was relevant. In all likelihood she was probably around 12 when they got married, because that was an appropriate age for a women in those days.
However, 3 is not completely problematic. Remember, Abraham’s servant traveled a long way. It is possible, even if unlikely, that at 3 years old Rebecca demonstrated a certain maturity that stood out to Abraham’s servant. He asked her which family she was from and she said she was from Abraham’s family. He traveled a long way, it probably took many months and at great expense, to go on his expedition. If he found a relative of Avraham, which he was looking for, who stood out to him, even if she was a bit young, her age was a minor detail – that would take care of itself over time.
Rebecca’s family says, let her remain here for some time and we will send her later. Abraham’s servant insists that she come now, and Rebecca decides on her own that she wanted to go now. It is reasonable to understand that the family said, “what’s the hurry?” She is only 3 years old!
In this scenario, she went back to Israel with Abraham’s servant and “married” Isaac. That does not mean that they were involved martially at that age. It means they raised her in Abraham’s house and when she was old enough (probably between 10 and 12) they consummated the marriage. That also makes more sense as to her pregnancy. The Torah says they were married for 20 years before they had children. But when she had kids it is not noted as the same kind of miracle as Sara who had children in old age. In those days 32 would have been very old for children. It is more likely that she was 23 or so, and the infertility was only in the latter 10 – 12 years of their marriage.