Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
July 6, 2014
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Audio not available for this sermon.
This summer we are remembering the foundational stories of faith found in the books of Genesis and Exodus. Some are dark and challenging, like last week’s story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. And some are gentle and hope-filled, demonstrating great courage and love, like today’s tale of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. In all these stories, God has a way of calling very imperfect people to service, and making something of them in the process so that because of who they were – both in their strengths and in their failures – we are here today. Their failures are as significant as their strengths in shaping our faith history, and sometimes, maybe even more so.
These early stories begin with Abraham and Sarah, often called the Father and Mother of faith, because of their willingness to follow God’s invitation to leave their home and follow God’s lead, not knowing where they were going. Along the way, God made two promises to Abraham – about people and about land. God promised Abraham that he would have countless descendants, and God also promised that those descendants would be given the land of Canaan.
Interestingly, despite these grand future promises, by the end of Abraham’s life, his descendants are still easy to count –there are only two of them, and their existence is a miracle in itself. There is Ishmael, whom Abraham sent away with his mother Hagar and who could easily have died in the desert; and Isaac, whom Abraham had almost sacrificed to God in obedience to what he thought was God’s will, only to have his hand stayed at the last minute by an angel of God, telling him not to complete the act. For a man who was promised countless descendants, Abraham was not off to a fast start.
And he does no better with land. After the near sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham went down the mountain and back to his servants who were waiting for him, but no mention is made of Isaac, and it is thought by some that he did not return with his father. Couldn’t blame him, could you? And soon thereafter Sarah died at the age of 127. Again, reading between the lines, some have supposed that Sarah died of a broken heart after she heard what Abraham had attempted to do to her beloved Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Abraham mourned for Sarah, and, because of her death, he acquired his first piece of property in Canaan, a burial site, a cave called Machpealah.
At the end of his life, he has two sons from whom he is alienated and a grave — This slow and seemingly disappointing lack of progress could be an excellent opportunity for a sermon on “It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn,” or “Nothing is Impossible for God” or “God’s Time is not Our Time.” However, we’ll hold those for another day!
Today’s story begins the saga of God’s promises in the lives of the next generation. Interestingly God does not speak in this initial story; nor does God intervene explicitly in any way. But God’s steadfast love for Abraham’s family is obvious in the way the story unfolds. It begins when the elderly Abraham realized that his time was short and he needed to arrange a suitable marriage for his son. We have to remember that arranged marriages were the custom of the time, and the bride and groom had little to do with the process, except to agree to it! Abraham wanted a bride for Isaac from his home town, not from among the Canaanites, and he charged his trusted servant with the task of finding the right woman for Isaac, preferably a cousin, as marriage between cousins was a desirable arrangement.
And so the servant set out for the city of Nahor, praying all the way that God would direct him to the right place and that he would find the right woman for Isaac. He was very specific in his prayers, as we are sometimes! He prayed that he would find her at the town well, and that she would greet him, offer him water, and offer water for his camels.
And sure enough, that’s just how it happened. Rebekah arrives, at the well, and the servant learns that she is the daughter of Bethue, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, who is Abraham’s brother! Although, this is a story of faith and trust, but it is also not lacking in humor. The servant notes Rebekah is beautiful, a virgin, and also apparently quite strong, as well as friendly, because after offering the servant some water, she does indeed offer to bring water to his ten camels so that they can drink their fill. And as I have read, one camel can drink as much as 20-30 gallons of water at a time. So you do the math – that’s a lot of water, but we are told “she promptly emptied her jug into the trough and ran back to the well to fill it, and she kept at it until she had watered all the camels.” (24:21)
For her hospitality and hard work, the servant gives Rebecca several expensive gifts, and asks if he might be able to spend the night at her home with her family. The servant is overjoyed with his good fortune because God has led him right to the door of Abraham’s nephew. And he quickly tells his hosts about his mission to find the appropriate bride for Isaac, how he prayed for a sign from God to show him the right woman, and how his prayers were answered by Rebecca’s appearance and welcome.
He wastes no time getting to the point by asking his hosts, “will you agree to what my master has proposed?” And Bethuel, Rebecca’s father and Laban, Rebecca’s brother, immediately answer that this proposal of marriage must be directly from God. Therefore, they say, “Rebekah is yours. Take her and go; let her be the wife of your master’s son, as God has made plain.”
After they had agreed to the marriage, the servant worshiped God, and gave appropriate gifts to the family. But, by the next morning he was ready to be on his way back to Abraham with Rebekah in tow. However, her family asked for the customary ten days to celebrate the betrothal despite the servant’s eagerness to get back on the road home.
Interestingly at this point, the family finally decides to ask the bride what she’d like to do. You might think that a young girl, knowing that she will be traveling a long distance to marry a stranger, might want a few more days with her family. She would surely appreciate the extra time to get ready for this journey of a lifetime since she probably would never return or see her family again. But surprisingly, she is ready to leave immediately, looking forward to her new life and what God has in store for her.
From her first entrance into this story, Rebekah has demonstrated her decisive character. She isn’t hesitant to take charge, and to initiate action, unafraid of challenge. She is quick to respond to a stranger’s request for a drink; sensitive to his animals’ needs; strong and determined as she runs back and forth to satisfy the thirsty camels. On her own, she invites the stranger with the camels and the gifts to spend the night at her home, perhaps sensing an opportunity for her family.
Rebekah has much in common with her soon to be father-in-law. As with Abraham before her, Rebekah ventures by faith far from her homeland and from her kindred. She, like Abraham will have a multitude of descendants. She seized the chance to become a part of Abraham’s family. With her strong will, she will shape its destiny in the next generation, as she advocates for her younger son, Jacob.
When Isaac finally appears in this story, Rebekah sees him wandering in the fields, perhaps still disoriented and grief stricken over his father’s near sacrifice of him and his mother’s death. He looks up and notes only a caravan approaching without attaching any significance to it. But Rebekah is alert, and she sees a man who might be her intended husband. True to character, quickly inquires about his identity and then veils her face in anticipation of their meeting.
The servant explains to Isaac all that has happened, testifying to God’s guiding presence in the encounter at the well. Isaac makes no comment and Abraham does not appear to greet his daughter-in-law. This this Rebekah’s story, and it ends with her meeting with Isaac, and the comment that Isaac loved Rebekah. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, love was not considered a necessary ingredient in a marriage, but for Isaac, it is perhaps recompense for the loss of his mother, and his alienation from his father.
Unlike last week’s story of high drama, today’s story has a gentle and hopeful ending, saying Isaac took Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent and he was “comforted after his mother’s death.” (v. 67). After the loss of Sarah and his own near death experience, his grief is quieted, and the promise of life begins anew in the next generation. Rebekah is a strong young woman—much stronger than her husband Isaac. Because she was not afraid to offer hospitality to a stranger and to take the risk of leaving home in order to find a new home, she will become the matriarch of a new generation, and through her efforts, which interestingly will not all be above board, God’s promises to Abraham will be fulfilled.