Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

After two harrowing stories — the near-deaths of both Ishmael and Isaac — today we have a love story, a love story that has been foreshadowed already in the account of the sacrifice of Isaac. 

Rebecca Begins her Journey to Canaan
Rebecca Begins her Journey to Canaan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn.

July 6, 2014

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

After two harrowing stories — the near-deaths of both Ishmael and Isaac — today we have a love story, a love story that has been foreshadowed already in the account of the sacrifice of Isaac. 

At the end of that account, there is a brief genealogy that includes the name of Rebekah (Genesis 22:20-24). Today, we meet Rebekah, a strong and courageous young woman.

In the intervening chapter (chapter 23), Sarah dies at the age of 127 and is buried. Coming as it does right after the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the account of Sarah’s death is linked by the rabbis to that tale. That is, according to one rabbinic midrash, Sarah died when she heard what Abraham intended to do to their son! The story of Sarah’s death is also linked to what follows. The death of one generation moves to the promise of a new generation; but to fulfill that promise, Isaac needs a wife.

This is a long narrative, filled with many details. The lectionary appoints only a selected number of verses in order to keep the reading manageable. The preacher, though, may choose to expand the reading, to employ a readers’ theater telling of it, or to re-tell the story in the sermon.

There is humor here — Rebekah offers to draw water for the camels, but one camel can drink 20-30 gallons of water at a time, and there are 10 camels! She is not only beautiful, it seems, but exceedingly (freakishly?) strong. Laban may be appropriately hospitable and pious (24:29-31, 50), but it doesn’t hurt that he has first seen the gold jewelry that Abraham’s servant gave his sister (verse 30). (We know from the later Jacob cycle that Laban is no fool when it comes to wealth.) And when Rebekah, after her long journey, at last sets eyes on her intended, the Hebrew very plainly says that she falls off the camel (verse 64).

It’s a good story, filled with drama and humor. What does it say, though, about God and the life of faith? God does not speak directly in this story (in contrast to the previous two stories). God does not intervene in any obvious way in this domestic tale. And yet, the LORD, the God of Abraham, is invoked by Abraham himself, by his unnamed servant, and by Rebekah’s family. God’s will is discerned in prayer and by observation, and God’s hesed (steadfast love, covenant loyalty) is demonstrated through human action.

Let’s look at some details: The unnamed servant is worried that he will not find a suitable young woman for Isaac, one who will be willing to leave family and homeland to travel to a place she’s never seen before. So he does what he can; going to the city of his master’s kinsfolk, he stops by the village well and there he prays: “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love (hesed) to my master Abraham” (Gen 24:12). He asks for a sign: the young woman who not only gives him a drink but also offers to water his camels will be the one.

Even as he prays, Rebekah comes out to the well to draw water. We know from other biblical stories that the well is the place where future spouses meet (Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah). The same is true here, though Abraham’s servant stands in for Isaac. When he asks Rebekah for a drink, she immediately offers to water his camels, too. He watches in silence as she works, discerning whether or not she is the one (verse 21).

Abraham’s servant seems to decide that Rebekah is, indeed, the woman for Isaac. After she finishes her monumental task, he gives her gold jewelry and asks to stay at her father’s house. When he learns that she is of Abraham’s kin, he is even more certain, and he praises God for God’s faithfulness:

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love (hesed) 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” (24:27).

After hearing the story, Rebekah’s family agrees with the servant’s assessment of the situation: “The thing comes from the LORD” (verse 50). And Rebekah herself does not hesitate to go. She is not only strong, but decisive (a characteristic that will continue in later stories about her). She, like Abraham before her, leaves home and family to travel to a land she has never seen. She is a model of generosity, strength, and courage.

Though unnamed, Abraham’s servant, too, is a central figure in this drama and a model of faithful action. Given a difficult task, he does what he can and he leaves the rest to God. He travels to the homeland of his master’s family; he takes his stand at a likely place to meet young women; and then he prays. Like Gideon in Judges 6, the servant asks for a sign. Then he watches and waits to discern God’s will. When the sign is fulfilled, the servant is quick to praise God for God’s faithfulness and God’s hesed. Finally, he bears witness to others of that divine faithfulness.

We could do worse than follow the example of Abraham’s servant when called to a particular task. Prepare. Pray. Wait. Watch for signs of God’s faithfulness. Then be quick to praise God and to witness to others of God’s faithfulness. Oh, and be generous. Generosity marks the actions of both Rebekah and the servant.

This story ends with the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac, and it is worth noting at least two things. First, the text says explicitly that Isaac loved Rebekah (verse 67). In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, love was not considered a necessary ingredient in a marriage, but it seems that God, too, is generous in this story, providing a wife for Isaac to love.

Finally, the text says, Isaac took Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent and he was “comforted after his mother’s death” (verse 67). In the shadow of death, or the threat of death (chapter 22), love is born, grief is quieted, and the promise of life begins anew. Rebekah, that strong young woman, will be the matriarch of a new generation, and God’s promises to Abraham (12:1-3) will be fulfilled.

God does not speak in this story. God does not intervene explicitly in this domestic affair, but it could be Isaac’s and Rebekah’s song that the psalmist gives voice to when he writes, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love (hesed) endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).