Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Genesis 24 constitutes an expansive narrative regarding the quest of finding a wife for Isaac.
The lectionary chooses to only include selections of this chapter, but the preacher would be well served to consider the whole of the narrative.
Genesis 24 fits into the book of Genesis as a whole considering central questions such as whether God’s promise of progeny, land and protection will be realized. In the matriarchal and patriarchal narratives that make up the narrative cycles in the book of Genesis, it is evident that throughout each generation, God’s faithfulness has to be discovered anew. In Genesis 24, it is Isaac who discovers that God was not only faithful to Abraham, but that God’s faithfulness extends to a new generation as well.
The topic of Genesis 24 is the question many young men and women ask when they come of age, and that is where do I get a wife or husband? In the case of Genesis 24 this question is all the more pressing as Isaac needs a wife so that God’s promise of progeny may be fulfilled. In Genesis 25:20 it is said that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah, in any age, and particularly in that time, quite a late stage to be a bachelor. It may not have been easy to find a wife as the family lived outside of their land, particularly as Abraham is adamant in verse 37 that Isaac should not marry a local Canaanite girl, but a good Aramean wife that offered a shared background and roots from Abrahams’ early life (cf. Abraham’s instructions to the servant in verse 10 to go to the city of Nahor, Aram-naharaim).
This drawn-out account of finding Isaac a wife in the end turns into a love story, when the narrative has a happy ending. In verse 67 it is said that Isaac married Rebekah, taking her to his mother’s old tent, and thereby instating her as the new matriarch of the clan. Moreover, the events of Sarah’s death and Isaac’s marriage are nicely joined together when his marriage to Rebekah is said to comfort Isaac after the death of his mother. And most significantly, Isaac is said to love Rebekah — one of the few instances in the Hebrew Bible in which love language is used to describe the relationship between a man and a woman.
So on one level, the account of Isaac finding a wife has a quite secular topic and outcome, suggesting something of the ordinary cycles of life and death that form the backdrop of many of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. However, this ordinary story of finding a wife for a sworn bachelor, which takes human experience seriously, is given a religious flavour as the theme of God’s blessing and guidance is introduced as a central part of the narrative.
So in verses 35-36, the servant’s pitch to Laban’s family with regard to the marriage proposal coming from his master’s Abrahams’ family, we read the servant’s interpretation of Abraham’s life, saying that God has richly blessed Abraham with many possessions as well as a miracle baby when his wife Sarah was already old. Also in verses 42ff we read how Rebekah is as well as considered to be an answer to prayer, for even before the servant concluded his prayer, Rebekah came along, giving not only water to him but also to all his camels (an image that particularly vividly attests to her generosity and commitment seeing that camels drink many gallons of water and she only has a singular water jug!). In verse 48, the servant looks at these ordinary events with eyes of faith when he professes that God has led him by the right way to accomplish his employer’s charge to him.
It is furthermore important to note the role that Rebekah plays in this narrative. This young woman who comes from a line of impressive matriarchs (Rebekah being the granddaughter of Milkah, wife of Nahor in verse 47) is portrayed in a few lines as a courageous, independent woman. When her family seeks to delay her departure, and the servant insists that they leave sooner, Rebekah is called in and asked her opinion that would settle the matter, suggesting a remarkable instance of female agency in the patriarchal context of the biblical traditions. Moreover, her decision to move away from her family and her land, to marry a man upon whom she has never set eyes, parallels the courageous actions of Abraham leaving all that is known to depart on a journey into an unknown future, accompanied only by the generous promises of God.
In the account of Rebekah leaving her home, an interesting reference is made to Rebekah’s nurse that is accompanying her on the next phase of her life (verse 59). In Genesis 35:8 we will once again hear about this nurse, named Deborah, when we read about the death and burial of this woman and especially how Rebekah mourned the death of her nurse.
This reference to the nurse, whose name is remembered in subsequent chapters, attests to the significance this woman held in the communal memory. In particular, this woman had a prominent place in the life of Rebekah, offering the link between her past life and her future life. The accompanying presence of Rebekah’s nurse moreover attests to the hope and the expectation for the many children that will come from this marriage between Isaac and Rebekah (cf. also the blessing by Rebekah’s family in verse 60 that she will be richly blessed with children who will be strong enough to overcome their enemies).
Finally, the fact that God is considered to be not above the ordinary life events with which people busy themselves; the challenges of finding a suitable life partner or the joy of finding one’s soul mate offers an important theological perspective regarding a God who is a personal God; a God who is deeply committed to and involved with God’s creation.