Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
Selections from Genesis 24
I know, I know…it is a long reading. Some scholars even think of this as a mini-novella inserted into the text later, self-contained and the longest chapter in Genesis. It’s a story about a beginning. Genesis is, after all, the book of origins – first of creation itself, then of the way that life got to be the way it is – why we work and labor and fight and love. Here are the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the tribal beginnings. Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar) bring about Ishmael and Isaac, the roots of Arabic and Hebrew cultures. Isaac and Rebekah will have Jacob and Esau, the beginnings of the tribes of Israel and Edom. The origins of all of the tribal conflict come, in the Genesis stories, from family ties. Maybe this is done because, well, who fights like family, right? It makes sense why there is so much conflict in the middle east if we say that it is born in sibling rivalry. But perhaps it is also written this way to remind us that we are all family – from the same origins and with the same blood.
In the story of the wooing of Rebekah, if it can be called wooing…it’s pretty sad wooing, frankly…a spouse for Isaac is to be obtained from his uncle Nahor’s family; and the ensuing cousin marriage, with Rebekah and Isaac both members of the same kinship group, serves to emphasize the importance of their lineage. It’s yet another way that we view marriage differently in our time and place than the Bible views it. We marry for love and we don’t marry our cousins – insert your stereotypical Arkansas joke here. The whole “sanctity of marriage” argument needs exposure to the realities of history, you know? But that’s another sermon.
So Abraham dispatches a trusted but unnamed servant to Mesopotamia, the land of his birth and where some of his family still resides, to find a wife for his son. The servant is sent to a foreign land, where maybe he doesn’t speak the language so well, nor know many of the customs. He’s not Hebrew. Yahweh isn’t his God, but Abraham’s God. He doesn’t even know how to do this – he’s no matchmaker. And the blessing he seeks isn’t even for him. This isn’t his struggle at all.
Rebekah secures her role as wife-elect for Isaac by befriending the servant and his ten camels in this famous well scene, almost a “test” by the servant, which has been called a type-scene—a narrative episode with certain expected motifs that appears at the critical juncture in the life of a hero. The account of Rebekah at the well is the premier biblical example of such a scene. It ostensibly draws attention to Isaac, but, in his absence, reveals the beauty, not just physical, and especially the virtues of his wife-to-be.
After the well incident, Rebekah brings the servant home, enters into the marriage arrangement (super-romantically), and sets off to meet her future husband. She seems to have some input into the marriage negotiations, or at least into the decision about her departure from her homeland and birth family. Once she arrives in the promised land, she enters Isaac’s home, where she is “loved” immediately by her husband, the first woman in the Hebrew Bible, by the way, for whom marital love is proclaimed. Even Sarah doesn’t get that.
Now I must point out that this chapter is often used solely as a story about marriage, or how to find a good partner, or, Lord help us, for the kind of advice found in commentaries entitled, “How to Find a Godly Woman”, which is a real title of a real commentary that might be used by real preachers. Ugh.
Rebekah is often used as an example of obedience, that she willingly, perhaps dutifully, goes to marry a man she’s never met, and how Isaac is seen as an example for deciding to love her at first sight…though there could possibly be some valid points to make about how love is FAR more than attraction and how it really grows out of sticking together and taking care of each other through good and bad times, but that’s not what holds my attention.
As much as Rebekah takes a central role in the Jewish matriarchy, another in a strong line of female roles – like Sarah, Hagar, Ruth, Esther, Rahab and Hannah – and as much as she plays a pivotal role in this origin story, far beyond her ability to procreate, I am stuck on the servant. Because, much like other stories in the Bible, there is a subtext, a seemingly innocuous foundation to the story that motivates all of the action, but goes almost unmentioned – a moral core to the tale. What appears to be a simple account of an arranged marriage turns out to be the intersection of several faith journeys, across tribes, across well-worn paths, in the intersections.
So much is made of Rebekah and her willingness to go forth, or Isaac and his dedication to this arranged marriage, but what of the servant? This is the one who really steps across boundaries, moving outside his tribe, beyond his religious expression and seeking blessing from a God who isn’t even his god. His faith, not unlike the faith that Jesus praises constantly in parable after parable, encounter after encounter…his faith comes from trusting that the blessing he seeks lies beyond his comfort zone.
Abraham does not say that God has commanded him to have Isaac marry someone other than a Canaanite woman, only that God has promised to make of him a great nation. No, this is Abraham’s will, visited upon his servant, Abraham’s desire to have Isaac marry from the tribe. God’s action in the story is to make sure that welcoming becomes the active agent of possibility, even with this tribal boundary. Now, the irony is that being hospitable is held up as a value in graphic detail in the chapters before this one, usually through Abraham. But now? Not so much. So God’s action happens with and through this unnamed servant from some other tribe, someone on the “outside” of whatever it is that Abraham thinks God has constructed for him. Abraham thinks that his road forward can only be delivered in one way, yet even he cannot make his illusion of purity work without the faithfulness of someone who he trusts to choose a spouse, but who he would never have a daughter of his marry.
Perhaps this is similar to the ways that we denigrate immigrants, calling them “illegals” or even “criminals”, thinking them less than us, until our house needs a new roof, or the crop is ready to be harvested, or we’re short on engineers for the big project. Perhaps this is another telling of, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, where our internal prejudices get exposed rather uncomfortably. There is a lesson here, a directive even, on how we see each other, what we see in each other. Contained in this story about tribal affiliation is a message that the power of God is found in leaving home, in crossing boundaries, in meeting strangers and making them family, in hospitality and grace and the intersectionality of faithful living…
I know that we’re supposed to take this passage and make the moral claim be about marriage, or being a good wife, but the moral claim I see this morning is from this servant, dedicated and engaged enough to reach across ethnic and religious boundaries, to pray to, even to worship, a God different from his own…a moral claim on us to be willing, as faithful people, to see beyond our own definitions, our own shallow vision, our own traditions and conclusions and certainties to a God who surpasses all of our imaginations. We are, after all, as Genesis reminds us in it’s opening lines, made in the image of this God, who creates all things, seen and unseen, imagined and unimagined, “real” and yet to be realized…a God who stands next to us, but who extends out…somewhere beyond our comfort zone, in the middle of an intersection…with a blessing.