Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

How will you know?


July 9, 2023

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

Genesis 24 in the Protestant bible is 67 verses long. For obvious reasons, the whole chapter could not be chosen for the lectionary reading, so the committee chose 22 of them, consisting of three intermittent pericopes to tell the story. A wise preacher, in preparation, would read the entire chapter, especially noting repetition and purpose. Why is the servant acting and how will he know he has succeeded? These questions are important for the sermon in a Christian setting, from my estimation.

The story, a betrothal one—one some have called a “love story”—is ultimately one about how one knows that God is leading, in other words, that “the angel of the Lord” has gone before you to order your steps to the will of God. In this text, it is demonstrated as Abraham’s senior servant embarks on a quest to find a wife for Isaac. The prayers of the servant join the recounting of the reason he is even in Aram-naharim (verse 10), the land where Abraham’s family resides. It is also a story of answering how God will ensure the promise God has made to Abraham that his descendants will be plentiful. It also points to the Deuteronomic concern that the Abrahamic line does not intermingle with the Canaanites, even though living among them (for example, much later in the deliverance and salvation story, the angel of the Lord goes before the Hebrews to drive out the Canaanites [Exodus 33:2; Deuteronomy 7:1]). In other words, the biblical story is not linear, but is rather anachronistic, written much later than the time it recounts and including the sentiments of a writer of later times.

We know the end of the story. But a preacher might make good use of the tension the slave feels. How will he know the God of his master is leading him. Abraham had assured him that God was with him. But what would be the sign? And what if he failed at his assignment? These kinds of questions are ancient and current. While we likely will never agree with the premise of this story—arranged marriage, with a bride price and plenty of gifts and funds to go to the family for the loss of a daughter—we can feel the need to discern how one petitions God in prayer and gets an answer; to pay attention to what points to God at work in everyday life—though we have to confess that the servant’s prayer is more consequential than our prayers for a parking lot.

The hearer may be disturbed by thinking about Rebekah as property. And we ought to be. But the preacher might, if she wants to go in this direction, lift up how our culture treats women as objects or monetizes the role of a woman in sex and in childbearing. It is easy for us to say, “that was then,” and it was, but the text always invites us into a conversation about how we might share some very human qualities with ancient peoples and cultures.

But this story is about how God leads and the role of humans in God’s work. It is a story about the servant’s prayer and his attentiveness to notice whether and how God is answering. Genesis 24 begins with Abraham’s assurance that God would send an angel ahead of the servant. Methodists would recognize that statement as prevenient grace—a grace that precedes our acts and that is completely the work and way of God. 

The preacher should also note that Rebekah must agree to the servant’s assertion that she’s the one for Isaac (verses 14, 45-46). He prayed that the one that offered him water and who watered his 10 camels, she would be Isaac’s wife. What kinds of “signs”do we expect when we pray? How do we know that God has “gone before us”? Who else has to agree that we have an answer from God? In this case, Rebekah, her father, and her brother agree. The text has Laban and Bethuel speak in chorus that the story the servant tells “come from God” (verse 50), and they will not disagree. Across the testaments, the preacher might remember the phrase, “out of the mouth of two or three witnesses”as a way to confirm God’s acts (Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16 & 2 Corinthians 13:1). A single witness is not sufficient for significant life choices. Or another way of saying “two or three witnesses” is that we need a community of people to discern how God is at work, even if we believe we have answered prayer.

This story is also about how God keeps promises to Abraham. In order for Abraham’s seed to be expanded through Isaac, Isaac needs a wife. He is currently 40 years old, according to Genesis 25:20, which might as well be the same as saying Abraham was 99 when he was born. How will the promise progress? 

Finally, this suggestion is a minor one, but important, from my point of view. The end of the cycle points to Isaac’s grief over his mother’s death. Sarah’s death is reported in Genesis 23. In Genesis 24:67, we read that Isaac, once he accepts Rebekah as his wife, marries her, takes her into his (dead) mother’s tent, where he loves Rebekah (one might assume sexually), and is comforted “after his mother’s death.” The preacher might consider the role that the servant’s action to find Rebekah as Isaac’s wife plays in his ability to be comforted and to move on beyond his grief at the loss of his mother. While this aside is not the most significant possibility for this text, it might serve the preacher if there has been significant loss in her and his community of faith.