Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

What appears to be a simple account of an arranged marriage turns out to be the intersection of several faith journeys.

July 6, 2008

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

What appears to be a simple account of an arranged marriage turns out to be the intersection of several faith journeys.

The First Lesson for this Sunday imparts confidence that God is with those who travel to new and unfamiliar destinations, just as God is with those whose homecomings are to places changed by a loved one’s death or by new family ties.

When we first meet Abraham’s servant, he is weary and thirsty from traveling all the way from Hebron in the southern hill country of Canaan to the city of Nahor in Aram Naharaim, in upper Mesopotamia. The servant is under oath to find a wife for Abraham and Sarah’s beloved son, Isaac, from among their extended family living there (Gen. 24:1-9).

In biblical times, as in some traditional societies today, marriage between cousins was the preferred arrangement. Rebekah is the daughter of Isaac’s first cousin Bethuel. In the next generation, Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, are first cousins.

The servant made this long trip because Abraham wanted to prevent his son Isaac from ever following the same route to return to the land from which they came (Gen.24:6). God promised a future for Abraham and Sarah’s descendants in the new land that he showed them, and Abraham is determined to have Isaac remain there.

Arriving at his destination, the servant seems at a loss about how to proceed. If only he could find a suitable wife for Isaac quickly, in the same time that it would take to water ten thirsty camels. It turns out that the two enormous tasks are accomplished at once! The servant prays for a sign of God’s steadfast love or covenantal loyalty (Hebrew, hesed) for Abraham (24:12, 14, 27, 49), and the answer to this prayer is Rebekah, the industrious young woman who draws water from the well (24:27).

While so much of the narrative in Genesis 24 is told from the perspective of Abraham’s trusted servant, this character remains nameless. We don’t know if this servant is Eliezer of Damascus (Gen. 15:2), once in line to be heir of all that Abraham owned before Ishmael and Isaac were born. This omission of a name seems appropriate, since the servant never focuses on his own interests, but instead continually witnesses to God’s presence in everything that occurs.

The servant recognizes God’s enduring loyalty to Abraham and his family in a chance meeting at the well (Gen. 24:12-14, 21, 26-27, 40). It is the servant’s testimony of how the LORD led him to Isaac’s future wife (24:42-49) that wins the consent of Rebekah’s family to his plan (24:50-51). They adopt his perspective that “The thing comes from the LORD” (Gen. 24:50), so they will do “as the LORD has spoken” (Gen. 24:51). The servant cannot rest until he has returned to his master, his mission successful by the grace of God (24:54-56).

Rebekah’s journey begins at the well. In the Bible, wells provide a meeting place for marriage partners. Jacob meets Rachel at a well (Gen. 29:1-30), and Moses meets the seven daughters of Jethro, including his future wife, Zipporah, at a well (Exod. 2:15-22). In Genesis 24, however, Rebekah encounters no future husband but only a thirsty matchmaker in need of lodging.

When asked, Rebekah agrees without hesitation to go with the servant to marry his master’s son, sight unseen (Gen. 24:58). This choice comes as no surprise, since we know Rebekah’s decisive character from her earlier actions.

Rebekah is quick to respond to a stranger’s request for a drink, as well as sensitive to his animals’ needs. She is strong and determined as she runs back and forth to satisfy the thirsty camels. No doubt something of an opportunist, Rebekah takes the initiative to invite the man with the camels and the gold to spend the night and then runs home to tell her family (Gen. 24:25, 28).

As with Abraham before her, Rebekah ventures by faith far from her homeland and from her kindred. She, like Abraham, will have a multitude of descendants, as her family’s blessing emphasizes (24:60; cf., 22:17). She seized the chance to become part of Abraham’s family. With her strong will, she went on to shape its destiny in the next generation through her advocacy for her younger son, Jacob, who in time becomes Israel.

When Isaac finally appears in the story, he has just returned from a journey to Beer-lahai-roi. It is unclear what Isaac was doing at this well where God appeared to Hagar as she fled from his mother Sarah’s cruelty (Gen. 16:7-14). Isaac’s unmotivated travel and his wandering in the fields suggests disorientation and grief, following his father’s near sacrifice of him (Gen. 22:1-19) and his mother’s death (Gen. 23:1-2). In this unconventional love story, it turns out that Isaac had been visiting one well while Rebekah was at a distant well watering camels.

When Isaac looks up, he notes only a caravan approaching without attaching any significance to the sight. What Rebekah sees is a man who might be her intended husband, and true to character she quickly inquires of the servant and then veils her face in anticipation of their meeting.

For the last time in the story, the servant acts and points out to Rebekah her future husband, explaining to Isaac all that has happened. Then the servant, who testified to God’s guiding presence in the encounter at the well, disappears from narrative view. His oath has been fulfilled, and God’s loyalty to Abraham and his family has been made known in Isaac and Rebekah’s union.

This is a story about traveling and hospitality, about meeting strangers who become family, and about taking risks and leaving home in order to find a home. It is a story that testifies to the power of love that comfort and heal grief. Most of all, it is a story of faith journeys with paths that providentially cross. The servant’s witness emboldens us to move into the future, confident that God’s angel leads us on our way (24:7, 40).