Patrick Mitchel: A Narrative Sermon from Genesis

Patrick Mitchel, professor in theology at Irish Bible Institute in Dublin, provides for us his manuscript of a narrative sermon from Genesis 24. Take and read, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Isaac and Rebekah: A Love Story. Genesis 24

INTRODUCTION

Let me introduce myself, my name is Eliezar of Damascus. Although you may notice I’m not named in this story, I’m named earlier [15:2-3] as Abraham’s chief servant and you’ll have to take my word for it that I’m the chief servant in Genesis 24. And I’m thrilled to be able to tell you a most wonderful story that I had the privilege of being a part of a long time ago – over 3000 years ago in fact.

It may be a story that appears a strange one to your modern ears.

I’m told that your Western ways of love are very odd – that matters of love are arranged between the man and the woman without their parents involvement; that in your culture there is much talk of romance and of hearts, of longing looks,, of loving text messages [we used clay tablets] and declarations of love on something called FaceBook; of walks on sunset lit beaches, of candlelit dinners, of dates (for me those  grow on trees), of a first kiss, of a proposal & acceptance, of telling their families the joyful news, of life lived happily ever after

But the story I have to tell you is a very different love story – an Ancient Near Eastern love story… You may find parts of this story alien – it is, I’m not afraid to say, a dramatic story of an oath, of faith and prayer, of a great journey, of negotiations, of a wonderful young girl, of gifts – including a nose ring –  for the bride [i believe some of you too wear jewellery in your noses?]; of camels; of ethnic loyalty; of eastern hospitality to travellers; of wells in the desert; of arranged marriages; of bride prices, of veils and tents.

But dear friends, it is a story most of all of the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord God

It is a story of my world, come with me back into it …

THE STORY

My master Abraham’s heart was heavy – his beloved wife Sarah has just died and been buried in Hebron in the land of Canaan – in the land that the Lord God promised to my master and his descendents many years before. Abraham had been greatly blessed by the Lord God – he was old – in our culture a sign of great favour – and he was a wealthy man with large flocks and many riches, he was widely respected by the Hittites of Canaan. But one thing above all was on his mind as his own mortality faced him as he wept over Sarah’s grave …. his promised son Isaac needed a bride if God’s promise is to be fulfilled ….

Yes, he had purchased a piece of that land for Sarah’s tomb and had begun life in this promised land, yet his hold on it was weak. We were in a foreign land, surrounded by tribes and peoples who did not know the one true God, far away from our own people. My master knew that for his son to assimilate and intermarry with the Canaanites will destroy God’s covenant promise that the land will become that of his descendents … So he was thinking much about how would the Lord God fulfil his promise? What suitable woman could be found for Isaac?

So he called me to him one day and asked me to swear a solemn promise – i know it will sound very strange to your ears but we did this by me placing my hand on his private parts [your modern translators are too modest to tell it as it is] – this is a sign of an oath that I must not break. [Do you do this in your culture?] He asked me swear ‘by the God of heaven and earth’ to go on a great journey – back to our homeland in Mesopotamia, near Haran and to find a wife for Isaac from among my master’s own people.

I was deeply honoured to be given such a great and important quest by my master who I loved – and a chance to serve his God whom I also know. I confess I was somewhat afraid of such a huge responsibility as well – what if I could not find the right woman? What if I did find her and she said no because I was not persuasive enough? The whole future of God’s covenant with Abraham rested on the success of my mission!!

However, my master was a wise man of great faith. He had seen the Lord God do great things, he had been blessed by the goodness of God – and he told me to trust that God would go before me and arrange things so that i could be successful. This encouraged me – and he also reminded me that all I could do was fulfil my part. I could not force a woman to come back with me – she also had to agree. If she did not, Abraham kindly said I would be released from my oath. This I confess was a huge burden off my mind – it reminded me that success depended on the Lord not on me …

And so as I set out with an impressive train of 10 camels, laden with provisions and gifts. It was a long long journey – I won’t bore you with the details but eventually i reached the town of Nahor, in Haran, in the region of my master’s descendents. When I arrived I made sure first to go to the well. The well belonged to the towns people. I am not sure what your custom is for offering hospitality to travellers when a camel train arrives from another town? [none arrive? – this is a strange inhospitable place]

In our land hospitality is greatly valued and they were glad to allow me to use the well. I made sure to visit in the cool of the evening. This was not only for comfort, but also I knew it was the time that the women of the village would come and draw water and was probably the best way I, a strange man, could meet the women.

As I rode up to the well my heart was pounding my mind was racing – the future of God’s covenant promise rested on the success of my mission! The trust and hopes of my master as well. So dear friends, I don’t know what you do when you feel overwhelmed and that events are outside your control ? I was prompted to pray.

I prayed to the one true God, the God of my master and my God too – and I prayed that He would grant my master hesed – blessing / kindness – in fulfilling his covenant promise. I knew that if I was to succeed I would have to see the hand of God at work. I prayed that God would have to make something happen. [Someone has told me since that this is the first prayer for specific guidance in the Bible, what an honour!]

And something came to me as I prayed – an idea. It was I believe from God. It was a test. If I asked for a drink it would be customary hospitality for a woman at the well to give a drink to a traveller from her jar that she has just filled. But for her to offer to water my camels would be inconceivable and uncalled for.  I don’t know what your camels are like in Ireland – but camels in the desert after a long journey can drink 25 gallons of water each – the girl would be offering to water 10 camels, to pull up 250 gallons of water jar by jar – all just for a stranger passing through her town. We are hospitable but not that hospitable.

Now dear friends I don’t recommend such techniques for discerning the will of God, this was an extreme situation, not a model to be followed.  It was the only time I have used such a technique – I believe it was the prompting of God. Remember this is a story of what God has done – and every story is different.

For even before I finished praying, a young beautiful girl arrived, a large earthern jar perched on her shoulder, which she lowered expertly down the well and retrieved full. My heart leapt – could she be the one? The very first girl I meet? So with trembling steps I approached her, trying to stay calm, and asked her calmly for a drink. As I expected she obliged, and lowered the jar from her shoulder and gave me a drink from it.

Then – and these words are imprinted on my memory – I will never forget her voice and the way she looked at me kindly and said matter of factly –  “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking”.   There was no reason for her to make this astonishing offer. She had already fulfilled any obligation of hospitality. But off she rushed, full of enthusiasm, – running back and forward with full jar after full jar – over and over again – until all 10 camels could drink no more. It took a long time I can tell you – I watched with a growing certainty that indeed the Lord was showing his hesed, his blessing and kindness to my master. This was an amazing girl – full of graciousness and generosity, and beautiful as well.  God is good!

As I sat there, my mind was churning with possibilities. Who was this girl? Was she part of my master’s tribe? Who were her parents and how would I begin to persuade them to allow me, a stranger, to take their daughter far away to marry a man they did not know? As she finished filling the trough for what seemed like the 100th time, and the camels had taken their fill and sat down, I called her over.

I decided that the direct approach was best. In our culture, it is the parents who decide who their children will marry. I needed to talk to them, I needed to impress them and I needed to know her identity. So I decided to take a risk, so sure I was that this was the right girl. Before knowing who she was, I gave her precious gifts that I had brought from my wealthy master Abraham. A gold nose ring and two gold bracelets – a fortune for sure and one that would be sure to be taken very seriously by her family.

So, again another crucial question lay unasked in my mind. So again with my heart in my mouth I asked who she was and if I could stay with her family. She replied “I am daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milcah bore to Nahor”

Ah those names! I was almost overcome with joy and thanksgiving. Nahor was my master’s brother, Bethuel is Isaac’s cousin. This beautiful girl is more than my master’s kinsman, she is part of his own family – the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother.

I don’t know about you my dear friends – have there been times that you have seen answered prayer? And more than this – prayer answered in such a generous and wonderful way that you could not even have imagined possible? This was how I felt – truly God is a great God! Once more I could nothing but pray and worship the Lord for his faithfulness to his promises and kindness to my master.

But my task was far from complete! Finding the girl was amazing – but there was much that was out of my hands. Persuading her family and the girl herself was the next task. Remember dear friends, Rebekah and her family did not know the God of Abraham. They worshipped many gods and I did not know what sort of people they were.

Rebekah as you would expect was astonished with the presents of gold – she rushed ahead to her parent’s home. Her mother Milcah and brother Laban was there, her father was not, I presumed he was dead. It would be with them that I would have to negotiate and I felt immedatiely that I would need all my wisdom and experience.

On seeing the gold, Laban had rushed out to meet me – I saw greed in his eyes. Although he welcomed me and said I was of the Lord, I did not trust him – and maybe you know that later there would be much trouble between him and my master’s family.

They showed me typical generous hospitality – the camels were unloaded, fed, my feet were washed, food was prepared – there was a tremendous bustle of business anticipating important discussions ahead.

I had come a long way, had seen prayer answered, and did not want to get distracted by formalities of a meal and polite talk. So before we ate, I told them the whole story … I wanted them to understand that these were events planned by God himself and that now they had a crucial part in the story. But as I spoke I was also aware that I could not force them what to do – I could only tell them of the will and kindness of God and invite them to take their place in his purposes …

So, after retelling the whole story, I finished by putting a choice before them – would they allow Rebekah to go or not? So many crucial questions I had to ask in this story without knowing the answer! Would they join in God’s plan to show blessing to Abraham or would they resist? I needed to know one way or another.

And after a pause – I was thrilled to hear their reply “This is from the LORD; we can say nothing to you one way or the other.  Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed.”

Another answered prayer! I fell on my knees in joy and thanked the Lord for his kindness. My mission was going to be successful! Incredible!

In our culture it is normal for a bride price to be paid to the family  – for they would be losing a beloved daughter and a her contribution to the family and her future children. So I brought out more gold and jewellery and clothing to give to Rebekah and many valuable gifts to Laban and Milcah. And after all this business was complete – only then could i relax and enjoy the meal – and I don’t think I have ever eaten a meal with more joy in my life! I slept like a log – exhausted but at peace.

But my celebrations was premature! The next morning as I was preparing to pack up and plan what I needed for the journey back to Canaan, Laban shocked me by suddenly demanding that I and Rebekah stay another 10 days, even his way of saying it was unclear – he could have meant longer. This was clearly a delaying tactic that could be extended and extended – there were many such cases that I knew of. We had made an agreement the night before, the gifts had been given and promises had been made. I could understand them not wanting to lose their daughter & sister so quickly but I was uneasy. I wanted to be gone – who knows what would happen if I stayed?

And so, once again with a racing heart, I reminded them that they had agreed that it was the Lord who clearly had been behind my coming and meeting Rebekah. Then Milcah and Laban did something surprising – they asked Rebekah to decide if she would go with me.  I had never heard of such a thing – in our culture. But as I look back now I once again can see the hand of the Lord at work. This question was one for Rebekah herself – would she herself willingly join in the purposes of God? Rather than just going because she had no choice? If she said no I know I might lose the marriage and all the gold …. everything hung on her next words:

Her reply is etched on my mind. I can see her, this young, beautiful girl, standing in front of her brother and mother – knowing she may never see them again and knowing they are wanting her to stay longer and maybe not go at all – going into the unknown – and saying with simple clarity and decisiveness “yes I will go” She was courageous and full of faith. My admiration for her rose even further.

And so, after finishing packing, with goodbyes and blessings for Rebekah from her family, we departed. My spirits were soaring I can tell you as we rode south towards Canaan – I was looking over at Rebekah on her camel – hardly able to believe my eyes – but there she was, visible proof of the kindness and goodnesss and faithfulness of my God!

And now let me tell you the end of my story:

It was weeks later when we finally got near the land of my master once more. To my surprise I saw a figure in the field – I could tell at once it was my master’s son Isaac. Imagine – the first person we met! I saw once again the hesed [kindness] of God.

And as i have reflected on these events I think too that this was symbolic of God’s promises unfolding. As my master Abraham sent me out, it was his son Isaac who would welcome us. Abraham’s life was coming to an end, the covenant promises of God would be continued through the family of his promised son.

Isaac of course did not know of our impending arrival. I could see him notice the camels – he knew immediately that it was me returning. I can only imagine his thoughts as he scanned the camels and saw the extra figures of Rebekah and her servant and approached wondering who his new wife would be.

Rebekah quickly put on a veil – in case you are wondering why, in our culture brides are veiled and she and Isaac were effectively already promised to each other.  And so Rebekah became his wife and succeeded Sarah by entering her tent, just as Isaac succeeded Abraham, his father.

But even more than this – you will call me sentimental – but the kindness of God was again abundant. Isaac loved his new wife Rebekah, and she was a comfort and companion for him as he mourned his mother’s death …

 

LESSONS FROM ELIEZAR

Friends I have had much time to reflect on these momentous events in which I played a part. Allow me to share two final thoughts with you before I go:

1.     God is the author of the story

Although Abraham had faith, I was able to use my wits {and dare I say a fair degree of charm J}  Rebekah was courageous and full of faith to say “I will go”; Laban and Milcah eventually kept their promise; – it is God who is the real author of this story. Although he never speaks in this story, he is never far away. He is, if you noticed, mentioned 17 times by all sorts of people.

He is the one who keeps his covenant promise to Abraham in the midst of real people making real free decisions. He is a God who is full of hesed, who keeps his promise, who blesses abundantly – he blessed Abraham, he blessed Isaac with a beautiful wife, he blessed Rebekah with a loving husband, and a vital place in his unfolding plans to bless the world; he blessed me with the honour of serving his purposes [although they could have been more successful at their marriage but that’s another story!].

I hope this story catches your imagination as you see his hand behind the scenes of everyday life. Let me ask you, how have you been blessed? For what can you give thanks to the Lord for? How are you led to thanks and worship for what the Lord has done? Dear friends, do not go through life believing that you alone are in control of your life and of events – or live as if God does not exist. You are not in control and God does exist and he is great and good. His hand is at work, he continues to work his good purposes out in this world. I hope that like me you will find there is not greater joy and privilege to be had than to love and serve the Lord.

2.     Like with Rebekah, he invites you to become part of his story 

A second reflection that I have pondered on for many years, is that while he is the author of the story, God graciously and generously invites people like you and me to become part of his story of redemption.

I am blessed to be with you today! For you are spiritual children of my master Abraham! That is amazing to me. You are living proof of God’s continued action of blessing. As he promised my master, his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the sea shore [Gen 22:17]. You are evidence that my mission was a success – far beyond anything I could have imagined.

I know now that through Isaac and Rebekah the promise continued – and through their descendants all the way to the nation of Israel – through the prophets and kings, to the coming of the glorious Messiah – the redeemer of both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves or freemen. That is truly astounding to me – people from every tribe and nation and tongue are now children of my master.

I can’t get that scene out of my mind. Rebekah standing before her family and being asked a question that would change her life forever. It was her choice. “Do you want to go?” – Do you want to join the story of your life into a greater story – the story of the Lord God and his redemptive purposes for your life and for the world? Do you want to take that step of faith into an unknown future? And her simple answer, “I will go”.

END

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://judybarrettblog.com Judy

    Excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have often wondered about Rebekah being given a choice in this society. Is it an indication that God wants both partners to enter into marriage willingly, or just a delay technique that backfired on the family? I lean towards choice.


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