Sometimes God only seems to keep part of God’s promises. To see their complete fulfillment, we may need to squint pretty hard.
Earlier in Genesis, God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, many descendants and a worldwide blessing through him. In their old age, Abraham and Sarah saw God initially fulfill that promise through Isaac’s miraculous birth.
As the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens, however, that promise seems to have hit a dead end. Sarah is dead. Abraham is “well advanced in years” (1). What’s more, and perhaps most importantly to God’s promise, Abraham’s only son, the son of the Promise, Isaac, remains a bachelor.
So unless aging Abraham can find a wife for Isaac, there will be no more descendants. There will be no Israel and no Messiah through whom God will bless the earth’s families. So Genesis 24’s teachers, preachers and those who hear us wonder how God will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham.
Abraham seems to wonder the same thing. After all, his last recorded words concern his bachelor son’s future spouse. Yet while the patriarch is desperate to find a wife for Isaac, she may not just be any woman who comes from any place. The old patriarch makes his servant promise “not [to] get a wife for [his] son from the daughters of the Canaanites … but go back to my father’s family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son Isaac” (37-38).
Not marrying a Canaanite also clearly became important for the descendants God eventually gave Abraham. Later, after all, Isaac also sends his son Jacob back to Rebekah’s family to marry one of his cousins. Even later, in fact, God’s law will specifically forbid Israelite marriage to Gentiles.
However, Abraham’s servant immediately spots a flaw in his master’s request. What, he asks, if Isaac’s future wife doesn’t want to return with me to this land? Should he, then, take Isaac back to the land from where his dad came? After all, what young woman wants to leave her parents, family and friends to follow a stranger to a faraway land to marry an unknown man?
Abraham, however, remains adamant. His servant may not under any circumstance take Isaac back to his homeland. God’s gift of the land, after all, is at stake here. Isaac must raise his family in the land of promise.
Abraham gives his servant what seems like an impossible job.
However, Scott Hoezee suggests the difficult nature of this assignment suggests that old Abraham remains confident that God will help his son marry the right woman. So Abraham confidently tells his servant that “The Lord . . . will send his angel with you and make your journey a success” (40).
With Abraham’s assurance of God’s leading, his servant travels to his master’s homeland. There he stops by a spring. Since it’s already evening, the servant knows that the town’s women will soon come out to it to draw water like they always do.
However, Abraham’s servant spots another problem: how will he know just which woman is Isaac’s future wife? His response to this dilemma reveals the depth of his faith. Before Abraham’s servant does anything but prepare his camels to drink, he asks God to give him a clear sign of Isaac’s future wife’s identity.
However, that sign turns out to be a hard test. Isaac’s future wife must be hardworking, kind and hospitable. She must, in fact, offer to go down the steps to the spring and then haul back up enough water to feed the thirsty ten camels and Abraham’s servant.
Yet before Abraham’s servant can even finish praying for God’s help, Rebekah appears. The narrator, Sidney Greidanus notes, clearly raises our hopes that this is Isaac’s future wife. He, after all, reports that Rebekah is both beautiful and unmarried. But will she offer to water both ten thirsty camels and a thirsty man?
Verse 46 answers our question by noting that Rebekah offers to do precisely that. However, the servant still can’t tell if Rebekah is somehow related to Abraham. So when she implies that she’s one of Abraham’s nieces, he gratefully worships the Lord. He later reports, “I praised the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son” (48).
Yet as Greidanus also notes, beautiful, unmarried Rachel must still leap some very high hurdles. Will she leave her family to go on a long trip with a stranger in order to marry yet another stranger, albeit a distant relative? And will her family willingly let her go?
When Rebekah’s brother Laban hears about this mysterious stranger, he hustles out to the well to check him out. There he sees the gold ring and bracelets that suggest this servant’s master is wealthy. Later the Bible implies that Laban has a pretty good “business sense.” So we’re not surprised when he warmly welcomes Abraham’s servant, takes him home, unloads his camels for him and offers him a warm meal.
Yet before he eats, Jacob’s servant insists on telling Rebekah’s family about his improbable errand. When he concludes, Rebekah’s brother and dad both profess that “This is from the Lord . . . Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed” (50-51).
Yet Rebekah’s family’s subsequent actions seem to contradict its words. After all, the next morning it begs for a ten-day reprieve. Jacob’s servant, however, insists on leaving immediately. To break the impasse, Rebekah’s family asks her if she wants to leave right away for a foreign land and an unknown husband. Or does she want to stay with her family for another ten days?
Much like Abraham went when God called him to go, so, in verse 58, Rebekah faithfully answers, “I will go.” Rebekah’s reluctant family honors her wishes. It even sends her away with a blessing, praying, in verse 60, “Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.”
When Rebekah, her maids and Abraham’s servant finally arrive back in Canaan, they notice a man approaching them. When Rebekah hears he’s Isaac, she dismounts her camel and covers herself with her veil. When his father’s servant tells Isaac all that has happened, Isaac recognizes his future wife. After all, verse 67 reports that “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
So when his wife’s tent was empty, Abraham sends his servant on a basically impossible mission. That servant goes straight to Rebekah. Rebekah says, “I will go.” Rebekah’s family eventually lets her go with its blessing. Isaac and Rebekah fall in love.
So is this a story that’s full of “good luck”? Or is there something, or more accurately, Someone at work here? Interestingly enough, as Walter Brueggemann, to whose commentary Genesis (John Knox Press, 1982) I owe much for the following insights, notes, Genesis’ narrator says little about God’s direct action in it.
Yet he reports four times in our text that the Lord made Abraham’s servant’s journey successful. This invites Genesis’ 24’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us to hear this story the way its main characters understand it. In answer to prayer, God sends Abraham’s servant straight to Rebekah. The Lord also moves Rebekah to say, “I will go.” The Lord even moves Rebekah’s family’s hearts to let her go with their blessing. God then brings Rebekah into Sarah’s tent where God unites Isaac and her in love.
However, as Brueggemann points out, God doesn’t just provide in a general way. Think of how Israel must have heard this wonderful story. It reminded her that God doesn’t just work mighty miracles like God did in Egypt. God also fulfills God’s plans by quietly shaping peoples’ hearts and wills.
In this case God graciously provides a mother for Israel. Israel will continue to exist – because God miraculously provides a wife for Isaac from a distant land.
But, of course, when the time is right, as Greidanus notes, God also provides more than an ancestress to accomplish God’s plan of salvation. In John 3:16 we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” So just as God graciously provided a wife for Isaac, God also provided a Son for God’s church.
In fact, we might say that if God hadn’t led Abraham’s servant to find Rebekah for Isaac, we wouldn’t have had their descendant, Jesus Christ. And if Jesus hadn’t come into the world, there would be no New Testament church and we wouldn’t be Christians.
Yet by sending not just Rebekah, but also her descendant Jesus Christ, God opened the gates of salvation, not just to Israel, but also to all the nations of the world. By God’s amazing grace, we’re part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham.
However, in the Lord’s great providence, the Lord also continues to guide the Lord’s people. As God provided for Abraham, his servant and Isaac, God also continues to provide for God’s church’s ongoing existence. The Lord makes our own various “journeys” “successful” until Christ returns to bring his kingdom in perfection.
Of course even Genesis 24’s preachers and teachers don’t always recognize that. We don’t even always recognize those gifts as God has graciously giving them to us. Yet God generously provides us with everything we need – and often so much more – anyway.
Last summer my wife and I drove nearly 10,000 miles from the United States’ east coast to its west and back. Yet who needs God to lead us on such journeys when we have reliable cars, mechanics and road maps? Who really needs God to grant success to twenty-first century North Americans’ trips, unless we run into some kind of emergency?
In a remote part of northern California we developed car trouble. Yet we were able to nurse the car along until we reached a larger city where mechanics could fix it. We saw that as part of God’s gracious provision for our travels.
However, only on faithful reflection did we see God’s movement behind all the events we hadn’t noticed or assigned to other causes. We had to carefully study things to see God’s gracious provision. We saw God’s leading and success – but only with the eyes of faith. Even then we didn’t always see God’s gracious provision. Thankfully, however, God provided anyway.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 9, 2017
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 Commentary