Calgary First Mennonite Church Calgary

A Bride for Isaac

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Written by Malcolm Kern

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July 6 Message   A Bride for Isaac[1] July 6, 2014 Genesis 24:1-33,49-60 (NIV) 24 Abraham was now very old, and the Lord had blessed him in every way. He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring  I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter. 10 Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim  and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water. 12 Then he prayed, “Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” 15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 The woman was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever slept with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again. 17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.” 18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. 19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful. 22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels. 23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” 24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.” 26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the Lord, 27 saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.” 28 The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things. 29 Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. 30 As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. 31 “Come, you who are blessed by the Lord,” he said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” 32 So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded. Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him and his men to wash their feet. 33 Then food was set before him, but he said, “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.” “Then tell us,” Laban said. 49 Now if you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn.” 50 Laban and Bethuel answered, “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. 51 Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.” 52 When Abraham’s servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the Lord. 53 Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother. 54 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night there. When they got up the next morning, he said, “Send me on my way to my master.” 55 But her brother and her mother replied, “Let the young woman remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.” 57 Then they said, “Let’s call the young woman and ask her about it.” 58 So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?” “I will go,” she said. 59 So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the cities of their enemies.” This morning’s story was a long one – even considering that I left off the last 7 verses where Isaac and Rebekah finally meet and marry, and skipped the part where the servant repeats to Rebekah’s family the details of the first 30 or so verses.  In total, this story fills the entire chapter, which is the longest chapter in Genesis, and that makes this the longest story in the book.  As a result, we find that this story has a completeness of detail that many of the other Genesis stories lack.  It’s a story we can really get into, a story that feeds the imagination.  Besides which, most people like stories about how couples met, and this one has lots of human interest.  Let’s face it, most of the rest of the “boy meets girl” stories in the book of Genesis are reported in the barest of fashions, hardly stories at all – like the way the first few verses of chapter 25 sum up all the remaining events of the last 35 years of Abraham’s life: “Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 5Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac; 6but to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East.”[2]  Hardly the stuff of dreams and romance.  By contrast, not since the account of God finding a mate for the Adam creature he made in chapter 2 have we had a “boy meets girl” story with as much detail and drama as this morning’s story. As a result, there are a lot of different things we could look at, dig into, and wonder about. We could, for example, talk about how this story exhibits features of ancient marriage customs, and how marriage functioned as a socio-economic, or even political, contract between families.  And if we did, that might lead into an examination of why Abraham seems so extremely reluctant to enter into such contracts with his closest neighbours. Or we could talk about the perils faced by the very rich in seeking an appropriate marriage partner, and how the servant’s actions could be seen as attempting to avoid the kind of fiasco that brings gold-diggers out of the woodwork, as in that failed Fox television series, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?  And if we went in that direction, no doubt we would want to talk about how the text seems to hint at Laban’s passion for amassing wealth, even in the context of marrying off his female relatives. Those and other aspects of this story might indeed be interesting, and have indeed generated lots of spilled ink in commentaries.  But I doubt very much that those interesting tidbits are what the story is all about; that they’re why the story is told here this way. Now, this is the very last story about Abraham, but if you think about it, it really isn’t about Abraham.  Abraham appears at the beginning, and he sets the story in motion, but then Abraham recedes into the background, as it were, becoming just a character in the servant’s story.  Even less is this passage about Isaac, who remains a background character until the very end, and is mostly not even referred to by name, but just as “my son” or “my master’s son”. We might think the story is about Abraham’s chief servant – certainly the servant is in the foreground of the story, he’s the one who goes and does things in the story.  But the fact that he’s not named suggests that the inspired writer wants us to see the servant in a secondary or supporting role – that is, to see him as the servant of the true protagonist in the story. An early clue as to who is really the central figure in this story comes when Abraham explains to the servant just why he is not permitted to take Isaac back to Abraham’s homeland to finalize the marriage.  He says, “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring  I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.”[3]  In other words, the servant is not to act so much as the envoy of Abraham, as he is to be the envoy of God.  And Abraham has absolutely no doubt that God is going to see this thing through, that God himself will provide the wife that is necessary if Isaac is going to pass this promised land on to his descendants. The way the story unfolds makes it ever clearer that God is the one choosing the bride for Isaac.  It’s there in Abraham’s explanation to his servant, and it becomes clearer in the servant’s prayer at the spring, and in his response of praise to God when he learns who this young woman is.  Indeed, I believe the story is told in precisely this way in order that all who hear it will understand that this is God’s work.  And as important as it may be for you and me and other readers at a distance to understand that, it’s even more important for the characters in the story to know this is God’s work.  And ultimately, that’s accomplished when even Bethuel and Laban declare that this whole venture has been God’s doing from start to finish. Once we see God as the star of this story, we can also see a little more clearly what the story is about.  Yes, it is about getting a bride for Isaac, but it’s more than that.  It’s about God enacting the next chapter in the program he set in motion back in chapter 12 when he called Abram and promised to make him into a great nation, and into a blessing through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed.  And the sub-theme of blessing permeates the whole story, from the very first introductory statement “Abraham was now very old, and the Lord had blessed him in every way;” through to the blessing given to Rebekah as she departs; and particularly emphasized by the servant in the telling of his tale to Rebekah’s family. Now what we do not see when we read this story in English is what would have been heard by the earliest recipients of this story hearing it in Hebrew.  In Hebrew, the verb “to bless” is barak, and the noun “blessing” is barakah.  So throughout the story, one would hear two words repeating back and forth – two words which differ only by having the first two consonants switched – barakah and Rebekah. For in a very real way, for Rebekah this story is not just the story of getting an intriguing offer of marriage.  Rather, this story is the story of God calling Rebekah to participate in the blessing, the barakah, he announced when he called Abram.  For just like he did with Abram, God is calling Rebekah to leave her country, her people and her mother’s house – to follow God’s servant to a land she has never seen, to join in the promise of a blessing that will eventually change the world.  That’s why it is important that everyone understand that God is the one driving all the action, and why it is important that the enterprise not get overshadowed by any customary extended leave taking or betrothal rituals.  What is important is the call of God to Rebekah, and her response, “I will go;” trusting that in everything else, God himself will provide. [pause] God is still calling people.  He calls people into things unknown, into scary things, into exciting things, into things that produce immediate dramatic results, and into things that require a great deal of patience – a long obedience in the same direction.  Sometimes God calls people directly, with an almost audible voice, as he called Abram and numerous other prophets, and the apostle Paul.  Sometimes God calls people indirectly, like the way he called Rebekah, through the obedient actions of others, and the direction of providence.  And no doubt sometimes God calls people through a slow molding and shaping, like clay in the hands of a potter, which is recognized as the call of God only later, looking back. However he does it, God calls people to set aside our own dreams, goals and expectations of how life should unfold, sometimes even seeming to ask us to sacrifice everything – so that we, like Rebekah, may join him in the work he himself is already doing. For you see, ultimately the story is not about you or about me, or about the intriguing details we find so interesting, or about all the wonderful things we can accomplish to make a name for ourselves – rather, the story is always about God.  God is doing it all.  God himself will provide everything that is needed.  And God calls you to join him in it all – to participate in his story of blessing the world. Only one question remains.  Will you go?     [1] This sermon presupposes the prior reading of Genesis 24:1-33,49-60, included here. [2] Genesis 25:1-2,5-6 (Tanakh) [3] Genesis 24:7-8


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