Genesis 24:34-67 (excerpts): A wife for Isaac
34Abraham’s servant said to Laban: 35“The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys; 36and Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’”
42“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ 44and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’ — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”
45“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. 48Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”
58They called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ 59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men, 60and they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. 66The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
When I train readers for their important role in the service I use the story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, change one name to a pronoun, and ask the students to listen as if they had never heard the story before and raise a hand when they can identify the participants. No-one has yet raised a hand before I have finished. Here we have a classic example of where continuity is absolutely essential. The NRSV starts “So he said”; The New English Bible puts it “He answered”; the Good News has “he began”. That’s great if we’ve read previous verses, but not when starting at verse 34. Who is this person who is a servant to Abraham, and to whom is he talking? I appreciate that to get answers to those questions requires us to go back to the beginning of the chapter where we learn that the servant was Abraham’s oldest servant, though not named, and he is talking to Laban, brother of Rebekah, who will become Isaac’s wife, and who is part of Abraham’s extended family where he was born. This whole story is far too long to read in an Anglican Eucharist service, and there is plenty of repetition to exclude, so let’s look at what the story entails.
In ancient biblical times the man was accepted as the head of the household. Abraham was old when he fathered Isaac. Two weeks ago the reading from Genesis told us of his other son, Ishmael, born of Abraham’s servant Hagar, being sent away so that he was no longer part of the family, effectively leaving Isaac as the only son to inherit a vast fortune. Today’s reading tells of the search for a kindred woman to become Isaac’s wife. Arranged marriages still occur today in many parts of the world. In biblical times it was such a common event, and a girl grew up expecting someone to take her to be his wife even though they might never have met. Abraham’s oldest servant might well have been Eliezer of Damascus, who would inherit everything if Isaac died without children, so it is remarkable that the person seeking a bride might be the very person who would lose everything if he succeeded, yet he honoured his commitment to Abraham. Would we?
In the verses leading up to this extract the servant had been practising his lines ready for an encounter with the one whom he trusted God had chosen to be a wife for Isaac. He had travelled some distance with camels and gifts, though we aren’t told how far, and had a firm belief that God would provide, so when Rebekah turns up at the well and provides water for him and for his camels, he is overjoyed. These days, if a loving parent sought out a bride for a son I could imagine the reaction would be quite different, but we have made huge steps towards recognising women as equal to men, and true love as being more important than where the wife originated.
As would be expected in that time, Laban and his wife Bethuel, were happy to have Rebekah leave the household and travel back to where the party would find Isaac. The shift in location and the separation from kinsfolk would be somewhat like it was for “Our Mary” when she crossed the world to marry Prince Fredrick of Denmark, though, in that case, it was love which brought them together and they are frequent visitors to Australia.
On the group’s arrival where Isaac was living there was joy at a wife being found for him, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” This is one of very few references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the relationship between husband and wife being one of love. Rebekah is installed as the new matriarch of the family. Isaac was reportedly a sworn bachelor and 40 years old when he found love with Rebekah, a remarkable fact for the age.
The stories in Genesis were originally passed on orally, and had variations within the different groups which followed. There is conjecture that, because we Westerners cannot pin down archeological data to correlate with the stories, that they are fictional. If the same thought process were applied to the histories of Aboriginal people in Australia we would be denying them their very real history and existence. Whereas there are many examples of conflicting information, especially in the early scriptures, they do not detract from the very real presence of these people through centuries.
Can we step back from our insistence of having everything spelled out ‘historically’ and accept the theological messages which come from passages such as these? Too often we reject the message because of some inconsequential “error”.