A Love Story
A Homily from Genesis 24:1-67
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
July 7, 2002 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Our story today offers the final chapter in the life of God’s faithful servant Abraham – and the first chapter in the adult life of Isaac, his heir. God does not speak at all in this story, but God’s presence and affectionate care are strongly felt. There is no obvious moral, no ready-made allegory in this account. If I were to offer you “five points of faithfulness” or “three secrets of successful relationships” from Genesis 24, I would be stretching the text quite a bit – not to mention boring us all to tears.
That would be a horrible injustice to this lengthy and lyrical text. It needs no deeper meaning and no higher purpose than that it is the love story of our many-times-great grandparents in the faith. It is a love story that their descendants, our spiritual ancestors, preserved in fond detail so that – thousands of years later – we can remember that people who loved God also loved each other – and that God was glad.
It is a simple story of a man and a woman, but gender is not really the issue in a love story. Some people are simply made for each other, and men or women when they find each other magic happens. It doesn’t always happen that way, but when it does it is a miracle.
Not a flashy miracle mind you, but the slow kind of miraculous combination where all the right elements come together into something beautiful. When the bread is toasted just right or the water is just cold enough on a hot summer day.
Abraham had seen those kind of miracles before, and we join him on a bright morning where he awaits the arrival of his oldest and most faithful servant. The text tells us that Abraham was old, advanced in years. We know also that he was quite wealthy, and the quality of his robe, the shine of the rings on his fingers, and the healthy glow of his aged skin all remind us of his prosperity.
I have trouble picturing him as fat or complacent. Abraham was God’s sojourner, always willing to pack up and go whenever God called. He had been through too many difficult times, learned too well that the promise of God did not always mean safety or security, to fall into that trap. And so I picture him lean and wiry, weathered and wealthy, sitting upon a pile of thick, soft carpets in the shade of his tent awaiting the most trusted member of his household.
We do not know the servant’s name, he is known only by his integrity and his willingness to serve. When this unnamed servant arrives, Abraham tells him to place his hands between Abraham’s legs and swear an oath. We have modified this practice somewhat in later years by asking people to place their hands upon Bibles when they swear solemn oaths, but I think this particular Near Eastern tradition is much more memorable.
With the servant appropriately posed, Abraham tells him the oath that he must swear. “By the unnamed LORD, the God of heaven and earth” Abraham says, “you must swear that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites our neighbors here. You must instead swear to go to the country from which I came, to my people there, and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
There is more to this promise than simply Abraham’s desire to protect his heir. Isaac is not just the future bearer of Abraham’s considerable wealth. He is also the heir to The Promise – God’s promise to create a mighty nation of faithful people who would be close to God’s heart and under the protection of God’s hand. And so, with his much less elaborate promise, the unnamed servant receives the trust of The Promise – and the hope, ultimately, of all humanity which will someday seek salvation through Abraham’s descendant.
This must have been some servant indeed, then, because Abraham has entrusted him with finding the right woman to become the grandmother to God’s chosen people. This servant has obviously had some experience with the dating process because he immediately asks Abraham the question teenagers have been asking sine the prom was invented, “What do I do if I find the right woman and she won’t go with me?”
Abraham tells the servant that, whatever he does, he cannot allow Isaac to go back there. She must come to Isaac in the place God has given them. Abraham tells the servant not to worry, though, because God has promised that Abraham’s descendants will inherit the land. God will honor that promise, and will send a messenger – an angel – to guide the faithful servant to Isaac’s intended.
At this point, perhaps Abraham paused to chew on a dried fig. He knew something about how the promises of God work. He knew that, even when the promise was clear cut, the fulfillment of that promise was rarely so obvious. In fact, it might be said that if God were standing in front of a horse-trader’s stall and promised you swift transportation, you were much more likely to find yourself on the back of a camel – or even a tortoise – than you were a horse.
The mysterious God who cannot be named is not one to be understood or predicted. Abraham has learned this – in spades. So, after some deliberation, Abraham offers the servant a way out. He says, “And, after God has lead you to her, if she will not follow you back, you are released from this oath. Just don’t bring my son to her.”
Perhaps we can learn something from Abraham about expectations. If, in fact, he were aware that we were listening in on his conversation, he might have more than a few choice words on the difference between what we expect of God and what God actually does. Unfortunately, our friend the servant has already packed his bags and we do not have time to hear any more words from Abraham.
The servant is headed to Nahor, the city where Abraham had grown up. Traveling with him is an impressive entourage which includes ten camels laden with carefully-chosen gifts for Isaac’s future in-laws. The servant reaches the city at dusk, as the women of the city step out into the cool twilight to gather water for the evening.
Knowing that he would find the young women of the town at the well, the faithful servant leaves the camels kneeling on the outskirts and heads into town. When he reaches the well, he prays to almighty God that the one young woman whom he asks for water and who offers it to him – and offers to water his camels as well – would be the woman.
Before he can finish the prayer, a beautiful young woman named Rebekah starts heading his way; bearing an empty jug. After she has filled the heavy jug and resettled it upon her shoulder, the faithful servant runs up to her asking for a small sip.
Without hesitation, Rebekah offers him as much as he can drink, and offers to keep bringing water until his small army of camels has been watered as well. She appears to be the one he prayed for, and the faithful servant watches and considers her as she empties her pitcher time and again into the trough so the thirsty animals can drink.
When the animals are through, the servant is convinced and he takes a golden nose ring and heavy bracelets from one of their packs. Placing them on Rebekah, he asks if he might spend the night in her father’s house. Her father, it turns out, is Abraham’s nephew. God has indeed led the servant to Abraham’s kin. We are told that the servant paused in that spot to worship and thank God.
The text tells us that Rebekah ran ahead to tell her family what had happened. Rebekah’s brother Laban, upon seeing (and perhaps testing) the weight of the gold on his sister’s arms, practically trips over himself in attempting to hurriedly welcome the wealthy stranger into his home.
At least an outwardly pious man, Laban is quick to comment that the visitor’s apparent wealth is a sign of the favor of God. This is certainly not a universal truth, or even something that will be proven true in the near future for Abraham’s descendants. Wealth and success are not always signs of God’s favor, nor are poverty and failure signs of God’s displeasure. We are, after all, followers of an itinerant, executed peasant carpenter.
Yet this is not a story about absolute truths or even general principles. This is the story of one particular family who enjoyed a special relationship with our Creator. In that context, it is important to note that both Isaac and Rebekah, our grandparents in the faith, came from families that recognized the holiness of God and also the involvement and presence of God in our lives.
Laban is eager to impress the servant with his hospitality (little knowing that the simple kindness of a sip of water has already brought great fortune to his home); but the servant refuses to touch the spiced food and aged wine he’s offered until he has told his tale; and he repeats it almost verbatim. “I am the servant of Abraham, whom God has blessed richly,” he begins. “My master made me swear [notice that he doesn’t say how] to find a wife among his kin instead of his new neighbors in Canaan. I told him that she might not come with me, but he promised that God would send an angel. Then he said if she still wouldn’t come then I was fee from my oath but that his son still could not marry a Canaanite. So I came here and sat at the well and prayed to God that the woman who offered me and the camels water would be the one. And Rebekah came and offered us all water and so I gave her this jewelry and praised God and came here immediately.”
Laban and Rebekah’s father Bethuel recognized that the hand of God was clearly involved, and so gave their consent. The servant rejoiced, because this one time at least God’s will had worked out in a way that he could understand and that made everyone happy. It made Rebekah’s family particularly happy, since the servant showered them all with gifts. Adorned in the glitter of Abraham’s silver and gold, robed in the bright scarlets and deep blues of Abraham’s finest garments Rebekah and her family celebrated with the servant into the night.
The next day the servant is ready to leave, presumably after the ancient equivalent of two asprin and some Pepto Bismal. Rebekah’s family wants her to stay a few more days; and in an unusual act for the time the choice is left to Rebekah. They ask if she will go, and she says, “I will.”
If we were indeed looking for moral lessons in the story, we could add another one to the one about hospitality that we learned from Rebekah. From her sisters we learn about kindness and camaraderie. Where they might be jealous or spiteful, they instead wish her the fullness of the promise of God – that her family might become a great and prosperous nation.
But again we do not have time to dwell upon these digressions, because the faithful servant has departed for Canaan with his camels’ load greatly lightened and his own step even lighter because of the good news he carries. Traveling with him are Rebekah and her servants.
Many days later, as they near Isaac’s camp, Rebekah notices someone walking towards them in the twilight. She asks who he is. The servant informs her that it is her future husband, and so Rebekah veils herself. The servant tells Isaac the story, presumably with all of the detail he offered Laban, and Isaac immediately gives his mother’s tent to Rebekah.
The text is careful to inform us that Rebekah became Isaac’s wife, that they made love, and that they loved each other.
That, in the end, is the whole story. There is no happy-ever-after to it. We well know the horrendous trials that their children faced in the service of God’s great promise. Walter Brueggemann cautions us to approach this text with neither too much cynicism nor too much naiveté. Life is never so simple that we can say “God always provides,” nor so empty that we can say “God is absent.”
We can say, however, that for these faithful people, living the whole of their lives in the loving presence (and on the unbreakable promise) of God, there was joy, fulfillment, and love. Amen.