Our summer sojourn through the Genesis stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs continues. Last Sunday we were called to consider the story of the binding of Isaac—the testing of Abraham—a story I said I found to be one of the most troubling in the whole of the biblical narrative. Tonight it is a story of an entirely different kind; it is a betrothal story, and one that again reminds us of just how different our world is from the world of our ancestors in faith. Yet as is so often true of these ancient stories, for all that they reflect that different world there is still much to be gleaned.
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The one significant incident that has taken place between last week’s story and this week’s is the death of Sarah, which has evidently inspired Abraham to find a wife for their son Isaac. After all, though Isaac is the promised heir, if he doesn’t get himself partnered and begin to have children, the promise that a great people will spring from Sarah and Abraham is still unfulfilled. Abraham, though, is not interested in having his son marry a Canaanite woman, and so he sends a servant back to the land from which he’d been called. The servant sets out, laden with gifts and accompanied by ten camels, and when he arrives he prays a most unlikely prayer. Sitting at the well just outside of the city of Nahor, the servant prays, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham,” and then he sets up a kind of prayer challenge. If a woman comes out to the well and when I ask for a drink she not only gives me water, but also offers to fetch water for the camels, then I’ll know that this is the one for Isaac. Talk about bargaining with God for a clear sign…
Sure enough, a young woman soon arrives; her name is Rebekah, and the storyteller is careful to note that, “The girl was very fair to look upon.” (24:16) This is very promising… and it becomes even more so when Rebekah actually does just what the servant had imagined. He asks for a drink, and she readily gives it to him, and then without being asked, she offers to water the animals as well.
In her comments on the passage, Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that “There is humor here—Rebekah offers to draw water for the camels, but one camel can drink twenty to thirty gallons of water at a time, and there are ten camels. [Rebekah] is not only beautiful, it seems, but exceedingly strong.” I mean seriously, what more could a nomadic herder want than a beautiful wife who can also handle herself so well at the water trough? Many a Mennonite bachelor farmer has probably dreamt of meeting a woman like this Rebekah…
The storyteller adds that while Rebekah was attending to this work, “The [servant] gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful,” (24:21) almost as if he isn’t going to believe it until he’d seen her haul up some 250 gallons of water. Well, she dealt with the water and camels quite handily, and so the servant took out “a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels”—maybe to impress on her that he was a man worth dealing with? He then asked who her father was, and if there might be room for him to stay for the night, and sure enough Rebekah says that there is room. In Everett Fox’s very direct translation from the Hebrew text, her reply is “Yes, there is straw, yes, plenty of fodder with us, and yes, a place to spend the night.” Fox notes here that, “Not until [she] has extended the offer of hospitality (and enthusiastically, with the triple ‘yes’) is the servant sure that “YHWH has granted success to my journey. Hospitality, once again, is the determinant…” “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham,” the servant now prays, “… the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.” And yes, they are kin, Rebekah is Abraham’s grandniece. I know, I know… in our world that likely be received as a problem; kissing cousins, and all that. But in their world… a blessing.
Rebekah runs home to tell her mother of all that has happened at the well, and that is where tonight’s reading actually picks up. Rebekah’s brother Laban comes out to meet the stranger, asking who he is and from where he has come. “I am Abraham’s servant,” the man answers, and then explains the nature of his quest, retelling all that has happened at the well. Here again Kathryn Schifferdecker sees the humour at work in the story, as she notes that while “Laban may be appropriately hospitable and pious, it doesn’t hurt that he has first seen the gold jewelry that Abraham’s servant gave his sister.” Laban will surface later in the narratives, playing a very important role, but also playing the part of something of a wheeler-dealer; the ancient world’s equivalent of the stereotypical used car salesman. We’ve just been given the heads up!
The story rolls forward, and with Laban satisfied by the stature of the family into which his sister will marry, Rebekah readily consents to go. The traveling party packs for its departure, the family blesses her in this new life, and then the camera quickly focuses back on Isaac. “Isaac went out to the field one evening to meditate,” our translation says, “and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.” The camera cuts back to Rebekah, who “also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?’” Again, Schifferdecker suggests that we see not only the signs of a budding romance here, but again some serious humour, noting that, “the Hebrew very plainly says that she falls off the camel”; something that has never made its way into our English translations.
“Then the servant told Isaac all he had done,” the storyteller continues. “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (24:66-67) You could almost just add, “And they lived happily ever after,” and you’d have a kind a classic folk or fairy tale, right? Not only is there a fresh romance, but the grieving Isaac finds that he can move past a place of sorrow over the death of his mother and into a beginning filled with promise. Babies can’t be far behind, can they? As it turns out, the couple will have difficulty conceiving a child, but in time twin boys are granted to them—Jacob and Esau—and the story will continue.
But for this night, maybe we should ask why it is this “happily ever after” story was one chosen to be featured in the lectionary. After all, there are a whole series of good stories, well told, in Genesis, and this is one of just a smallish handful that will be read in this two-month period.
I have to admit that when I first read the story—particularly in the truncated form in which it is appointed to be read—I wondered a bit about that a bit. Last week we had that very important, very complex story about the binding of Isaac, and next week it is the story of the roots of the deep tension between Jacob and Esau, which also sets up the whole story of Jacob; one of the most extraordinary characters in the whole biblical narrative. How does this little romance compare with those?
Maybe because it is a romance, and maybe because God actually takes romances—including our romances—quite seriously as sources of life and of grace. Isaac is said to love Rebekah, which in their world was not something considered of any importance in arranging marriages. But here, it matters; it counts.
And maybe we are called to attend to the story because Rebekah is really the star character, and in so many ways a much stronger character in this second generation family than is Isaac. She is the one willing to leave behind home and family to travel to an unknown land, just as Abraham and Sarah before her had done. She even does it alone, prepared to trust herself to the unknown. Remember, it is the servant who does the praying and it the servant who receives the sign. Rebekah—beautiful and strong and decisive Rebekah—will see the hand of God only in retrospect. But still she goes, and in time she will discover not only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also the God of Sarah, who walked before her, and of Leah and Rachel, who walk after her.
We tell the story, in other words, because Rebekah is one of our matriarchs and Isaac is one of our patriarchs. They are among our ancient forebears, and we need to know about those who have gone before. And to do that, there’s just nothing like a good story, well told.