Opening The Old Testament
YHWH, or Abraham, Plays Matchmaker: Reflections on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
July 6, 2014
This chapter of Genesis contains quite the longest single-chapter story in the book, fully sixty-seven verses. Yet, its great length at first appears not to be matched with an equally rich narrative. Oh, the tale is pleasant enough. Abraham, now very old indeed, sends his senior servant to the home country, the land to the east of the Jordan often named Aram-Naharaim, to secure a wife for his son, Isaac. He is fearful that the boy might get entangled with a local Canaanite girl, a prospect Abraham abhors (Gen. 24:3), so he insists that his daughter-in-law come from the place of his own origins, and that she preferably be one of his own extended family.
We are not told directly the reason for Abraham's insistence that Isaac avoid the local women, but it hardly takes much thought to supply a reason. The ancient Israelites are fearful that their stock will be diluted by local physical entanglements with persons they consider to be unworthy of such relationships. It is an age-old problem, rooted in a notion of superiority and potential bigotry. It has not been too many years past in the U.S. when persons of different races found law a barrier to love. The "sin" of miscegenation, crudely stated "race mixing," was nearly universally acclaimed as the "right" way to order any civilized society. Of course, as we all know too well, when taken to monstrous extremes (as in Nazi Germany, 1933-45) such ideologies can lead to much more than bigotry.
Abraham commands his servant using such an ideology, attempting to avoid the "pollution" of the Canaanites. Absurdly, such biblical texts and ideas within them have been applied to modern practices, leading to gross ignorance in human relationships. The hope that this ignorance is diminishing may be found in my own recent experience. My wife and I went to a local Dallas restaurant last week, and among the six couples that shared our part of the dining room, fully half of those were mixed-race couples, all three with children in tow. Surely, Abraham's demands are not to be taken as a model of any sort in our world.
The servant heads east, hoping to fulfill his master's commands. Of course, he does so in every respect. He prays that a woman will come to the well, will ask if she may give him a drink, and will further say that she will water all his camels in the bargain. And so it happens. The comely Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, son of Milcah, wife of Nahor, comes to the well and proceeds to do and say all that the servant had prayed that she would. We are told twice that she is the perfect consort for Isaac, due to her actions at the well. When the servant asks that she come with him back to his master Abraham and his anxious son, Isaac, she readily agrees. Upon returning to Israel, she meets Isaac in the field of his father, land that Isaac now owns as heir, quickly veils her face as was the custom, and in short order she and Isaac are married. In a nice touch we are told at the end of all this that "Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (Gen. 24:67).
Is there nothing more to find here than this simple account of matchmaking and marriage? I think there is. Rebecca has a brother whose name is Laban, a man who will figure prominently in the next cycle of stories about Jacob, one of the twin sons finally borne to Isaac and Rebecca. His character is cleverly revealed to us in a line that could be easily missed, if we were not reading the story with care and precision. All the obvious repetitions could perhaps dull us to the subtleties that the story enshrines.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.