July 6, 2014
The verses excerpted from Genesis 24 (34-38, 42-49, 58-67) that we read this morning give us just the most basic picture of one of my favorite love stories. I hope you will be motivated to read it in its entirety at one sitting this week. Let this love story fuel your reflection on God’s role in your times of transition and decision making. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola gives practical advice for making decisions, that he calls elections. “In every good election, insofar as it depends on us, the eye of our intention ought to be single. I ought to focus only on the purpose for which I am created, to praise God our Lord and to save my soul. Accordingly, anything that I elect ought to be chosen as an aid toward that end.” 169:2-3
We face different issues at different stages of our journeys with Jesus. When we are young we want to make decisions so our life can unfold with joy and satisfaction. When we are older, we look back at how our lives have come together with both gratitude and sometimes regret. Right now, this congregation is in the transition that will bring a new pastor with a new but still unknown future. Candy and I are also looking ahead, not only to our next interim pastorate but to transitions with our son Erik and with Candy’s Dad.
Wherever we are on our journeys with Jesus, we ask similar questions that do not have a single answer but diverge and expand in many directions. Am I loved? What does my life mean? Do I have strong enough faith? How do all the pieces of my life fit together? Can I find God’s love in the uncertain parts of my life?
The story of how God brought Rebekah and Isaac together helps me expand my perspective on how God fits the pieces of life together with delight, surprise and love.
I want to tell this story from Genesis 24 through the eyes of Abraham’s senior servant. The text doesn’t name him but the general consensus is that it was Eliezer whom Abraham thought would be his heir before Isaac was born. (Genesis 15:2)
Listen to the story with your questions about your decisions and transitions at this point on your journey.
The story actually starts with the death of Sarah. (Genesis 23)
Sarah and Abraham were already old when Isaac was born. After Sarah’s death, Abraham knew that he would soon be departing this life as well. The time had come to find an appropriate wife for Isaac, with whom God would continue the covenant promises.
Abraham sent his servant, who I am going to assume was Eliezer for the sake of storytelling simplicity, to find God’s chosen wife for continuing the covenant through Isaac. No pagan Canaanite woman but one from his own clan who recognized the Lord as God, even if imperfectly. This exclusivity was not about race or ethnicity per se but about faith and covenant faithfulness. I almost wonder if Abraham already knew something about God’s choice of Rebekah. He was confident God’s angel would guide Eliezer.
When Eliezer reached his destination, he prayed to the God of Abraham, appealing to God’s steadfast love for Abraham to make his mission successful. Whether in his own heart or prompted by God, he set a sign that when he asked the right woman for a drink of water she would give him a drink and water his ten camels.
Before he finished praying, Rebekah appeared and was identified as coming from the right family before she fulfilled the conditions of Eliezer’s sign.
His tentative faith having been rewarded by the exact fulfillment of the sign he set, Eliezer worshipped the God of Abraham.
Though the text doesn’t say it explicitly, apparently Rebekah’s father Bethuel had died and her probably older brother Laban acted on behalf of the family in consultation with their mother. When he met Eliezer, Laban recognized that God’s blessing on Abraham was also on Eliezer.
With typical Middle Eastern hospitality, Laban hosted a feast for Eliezer and his entourage. Before eating, Eliezer retold the whole story to the family. Laban spoke with the authority of his father Bethuel and acknowledged God had chosen Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife and sent Eliezer for her.
With the success of his mission confirmed by Rebekah’s family, Eliezer again worshiped God in satisfied gratitude. He had set out on this mission with tentative faith in the steadfast love of God for his master Abraham. When that faith was confirmed in finding Rebekah, Eliezer worshipped the God of Abraham. But now, knowing that he’d be bringing Rebekah back to Isaac, he worshiped God without mentioning Abraham. He was no longer hitchhiking on Abraham’s relationship with God. Eliezer now had his own personal relationship with and faith in God.
This story starts and ends with a focus on Isaac’s mother Sarah. When Rebekah realized the significance of her meeting with Eliezer and the gifts he gave her, she ran to tell her mother. She was excited, and I assume her mother was too. Laban consulted with Rebekah’s mother in the negotiations with Eliezer. I suspect she may have been the one who insisted that Rebekah herself be asked if she would go with Eliezer to become Isaac’s wife. Her “I will,” was not only consent but a readiness to depart immediately. She was anxious to embrace God’s call on her with joy and faith.
Rebekah’s whole household pronounced a blessing on her that identified her with God’s covenant with Sarah and Abraham. Her own maids accompanied her, sharing in her joy, perhaps something on the order of the blessing of a bridal shower today.
In contrast with the details in Eliezer’s narrative, the conclusion of the story is told with spare brushstrokes that invite us to imagine this covenant quest transformed into a love story. As Eliezer’s caravan with Isaac’s bride approached the camp, Isaac was out walking. I imagine he walked east many evenings, anticipating catching the first glimpse of his bride. When Rebekah saw him coming and confirmed her expectation with Eliezer, she slipped quickly from her camel, put on a bridal veil and headed toward Isaac. Like a cinematographer, I imagine Rebekah and Isaac quickening their pace as they are drawn relentlessly to each other.
Neither the Hebrew Scripture nor the New Testament record any religious wedding ceremonies presided over by priest, prophet or rabbi – apostle, elder or pastor. Both do report wedding celebrations, both joyful and awkward, and both recognize a clear distinction between before and after. Weddings were public celebrations of both families with the couple. The story doesn’t tell us about the party Abraham threw for Isaac and Rebekah, but I’m sure it was great!
The story does, however, make clear that Isaac loved Rebekah. The New Testament instructs husbands to love their wives, but with a few notable exceptions, the Hebrew Scripture only rarely describes marital love. So Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent and they became husband and wife. Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
With masterful, Middle Eastern technique, the story is told twice, once as it happened and again as Eliezer told it to Rebekah’s family. Several stories in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament do this. The story comes full circle from Sarah’s death and Abraham’s grief to Rachel and Isaac in Sarah’s tent and Isaac’s comfort.
Perhaps you are asking, “How can you call this a love story?”
Eliezer’s determined confidence in pursuing his mission was driven by God’s steadfast love for Abraham. (vv. 12,14,27)
As the story unfolds, Eliezer was able to receive God’s steadfast love for himself. Each time Eliezer spoke to or about God, he said “the God of my master Abraham,” but when Rebekah’s family recognized that God has chosen her for Isaac’s wife and released her, Eliezer worshiped God without mentioning Abraham. (v.52)
When Eliezer first saw Rebekah he recognized she was a pure virgin and very fair to look upon. So we don’t need a Hollywood bedroom scene to imagine Isaac’s love for her when he took Rebekah into his mother’s tent and she became his wife. The steadfast love of God was poured out in fullness on this couple.
I hope reflecting on this story helps you recognize God’s steadfast love as the pieces of your journey fit together.