Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
“This is the Lord’s doing. We have nothing to say about it” (Genesis 24:50).
These words of Laban and Bethuel in response to the story of Abraham’s servant capture the major preoccupation of this story—attending to the leading and activity of God.
There are certainly other things that may capture our attention in this story, things that may make us uncomfortable. For instance, given that Abraham’s kin are polytheists (Genesis 31), it seems likely that his interests in having Isaac marry family was motivated by ethnocentrism rather than religious concerns. Furthermore, the uncritical acceptance of a patriarchal culture leads Abraham’s servant and Bethuel and Laban to negotiate for Rebekah like she was a piece of property. Both of these ancient cultural practices may make it hard to appreciate this story today. And to some extent, it is right and good that we should be uncomfortable with these practices, because this is not what this story is affirming or celebrating. Instead, the focus is on what the Lord is doing and the attentiveness of those in the story to how God is at work.
The narrative includes all the elements typically found in a betrothal type-scene. A foreign man travels to a distant country to find a wife for himself or his master. Upon his arrival, he goes to a well outside the town where he happens upon a young woman. The scene concludes with the foreigner returning to the home of the young woman where arrangements are made for the betrothal.
Against the backdrop of these common elements are some rather striking features in Genesis 24. In particular, what stands out is the explicit trust and recognition of God’s leading in all of this. While not part of the lectionary selection, the story begins with Abraham commissioning his servant to find a woman from Abraham’s homeland and bring her to Canaan to be a wife for Isaac. The problem, however, is how will the servant accomplish such a weighty task? How will he find the right woman? And how will he know she is the right woman when he finds her? The answer? The angel of the Lord will go before the servant, guiding the servant’s way and even preparing the heart of the right woman so that she is willing to come back with him (Genesis 24:7).
As the servant starts on his way, he prays that the Lord would make him successful in this task, as if alerting God that he is ready and eager to attend to God’s guidance. This is particularly striking because we don’t actually know if Abraham’s servant is a god-fearer.
Predictably, his journey takes him to a well outside the town of Nahor. There the servant prays again, this time detailing the sign by which God would lead the servant to the right woman. She will be kind and thoughtful, offering not only the servant a drink but his camels as well. The sign itself is nothing out of the ordinary. It was common for women to take on the responsibility for fetching water and watering the flock (Genesis. 29:1-12). Yet the servant is insistent (it is repeated twice), that Rebekah’s offer at the well is a sign from God and an indication of God’s leading. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin,” the servant proclaims (verse 27). And again, when relaying the whole story to Laban and Bethuel, the servant says, “Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son” (verse 48).
God led him. In Rebekah’s ordinary actions, the servant sees the extraordinary, the hand of God. Rebekah follows suit. Certain that Rebekah is the wife for Isaac, the servant sets out to leave the next morning. Laban and Rebekah’s mother urge the servant to stay around and give them time to get used to the idea of losing their sister and mother. But when the decision is put to Rebekah, she herself responds with clear and decisive action. She will go (verse 58).
The faith of Rebekah and Abraham’s servant are truly remarkable and inspiring. The challenge for us today, however, is how do we know we are discerning the voice of God correctly? How do we know it is the voice of God?
This is no small problem and has led to two opposite tendencies among Christians. The first is an agnosticism about God’s leading in our lives. Because we can’t know for sure, we function as if God is not a real agent active in our world or in our lives.
The second is to align too closely our own thoughts and impulses with the voice of God. In this case, we risk sanctioning our whims with divine approval and lend the authority of God to our human impulses. This is extremely dangerous and has the potential to cause significant harm.
So how do we navigate this? How do we become wise discerners in hearing God’s voice and determining God’s leading? For one thing, as Christians, we are blessed to have the Scriptures that teach us God’s character and God’s will. Whatever leading we discern from God, it ought to be consistent with what we see in Scripture.
This story, however, gives us another criterion for discerning the leading of God, that is, the community of faith. Every single person in this story seems to recognize the hand of God in this, from Abraham who commissioned his servant to go to the land of his kin to Bethuel and Laban who recognize that this is the Lord’s doing to Rebekah who acts with courage and faith to go with the servant to a home she knew not.
And perhaps this is the encouragement to be had from this story—to eschew both agnosticism and overconfidence about our ability to discern God’s leading in our lives and instead, lean heavily on the community of faith, past and present, to help us discern the voice of God. And when, with the community of faith, we do finally recognize God’s leading, may we, like Rebekah, respond with eager assent, “we will go.”