“Then Laban and Bethuel replied, “The matter comes from the LORD; so we cannot speak to you bad or good. “Here is Rebekah before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken.”” Gen. 24:50-51
The mention of Bethuel’s name in this verse is the only thing that makes the possibility for the case he is alive. Alter, among other commentators, notes that the name here appears to be a later scribal insertion. Indeed, if you read the chapter with the assumption Bethuel is dead, the chapter itself makes more sense, explaining why Laban is handling all the affairs. Please see my previous posting on this here for more on Bethuel.
Josephus, in his “Antiquities of the Jews” wrote specifically that Rebekah said her father was dead, and further that Laban was “the guardian of her virginity.” (Antiquities, Book I, Ch. 16).
At least one commentator offers an alternate explaination. Plaut, in his Modern Commentary on the Torah says it is more likely that the mother’s household (apparently including Laban) played a sizable role, which he referred to as “an earlier societal pattern” known as a matronymic system.
As far as what was said in the narrative, that the family could not speak good of bad of the situation: it appears that it was entirely acceptable to the family for Rebekah to go with the servant to become Isaac’s wife. Knowing that Abraham was A) a relative, B) financially stable and C) about to pass all of the estate to his son Isaac, a thorough comfort level was reached by the family.
So why could they say nothing good of it? In many ways, they would surely have good things to say – so the phrase here does not mean they cannot speak good (or bad) but rather they are indicating they are in such full agreement that they could not bring up any arguing points at all. Biblical phrases such as this are often just slightly misunderstood, but it can change how we understand a passage.
A Note on Biblical Accuracy
The idea of a scribal insertion, or change, is extremely bothersome to some bible readers. Our conception of how the scriptures came into existence, and to what degree we believe that God Himself wrote, oversaw, or otherwise inspired the scriptures greatly affects our belief about their nature, and the status we ascribe to them. Many believe that all of “God’s Word” (i.e., the entire canonized modern bible,) is infallible and inerrant. If we believe this, we automatically rule out the possibility that a few scribes may have added a change that made it’s way into the final version we now read.
However, we know there are differences in the various manuscripts; and piecing together such ancient documents, in various states of legibility, etc. is certainly no easy task, and as copies were made by hand, at the very least, minor changes were introduced. In this case, it appears unimportant as to whether Bethuel is alive or not; it has no obvious significance, and it does not change the outcome of the story or its meaning. But when multiple manuscripts have such differences in more important portions of the text we tend to become uneasy. Until we are experts at reading biblical Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, we have little choice but to trust our translators and decide which translation we wish to read.