Led by the right way
Sermon preached at Enmore. Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 9th July 2017
Reading: Genesis 24: 34–67; Matthew 11. 15–19; 25–30
After two harrowing stories from the Abraham saga- the near deaths of both Ishmael and Isaac we are relieved this morning to read a love story with a happy ending. This is one of the best narratives in Genesis and it is worth reading the full version when you get home, not just the ‘Readers Digest’ condensed version that the lectionary gives us. In the previous chapter, the death of Sarah at the age of 127 is recorded. It is a sad event, not just because of Sarah’s death, but also because it reminds Abraham that he still waits for the fulfilment of God’s promise of land. He remains a sojourner, who is rich in goods but owns no property. He has to enter into negotiations with the local Hittite people so that he can purchase a piece of ground with a cave where Sarah can be buried. The story of Sarah’s death is linked to what follows: the passing of one generation moves to the promise of a new one but for that to happen Isaac needs a wife.
Abraham’s unnamed servant is given the daunting task of finding a wife for Isaac. Abraham is determined that the wife is not to be a Canaanite woman from the local area but someone related to Abraham’s family, who live in Haran some 600 or so kilometres to the north. Not surprisingly, the servant asks, ‘what if the woman I find is not willing to leave her family; can I return here and take Isaac to her?’ Abraham expressly forbids this. To do this would be to deny the validity of God’s promise concerning the land. For Abraham and his descendants there is to be no going back to their former home- they must stay in the land that God has promised to them. Abraham’s servant swears a solemn oath and sets out on his journey with an abundant supply of gifts no doubt designed to convince a prospective bride that her husband is a man of substance.
After a long journey, the servant arrives at his destination and he makes his 10 camels kneel down by the town’s well. He then prays. This is the first time in the Book of Genesis that we have the actual words of a person praying. We have had Cain and later Abram calling out to God in distress but these words and the later prayer of the servant in 24.27 are the first formal prayers in the Bible. It’s a good prayer: the servant asks God for his mission to be successful. He asks that God will show steadfast love to his master Abraham. Steadfast love (Hebrew, hesed) will occur throughout the rest of the Old Testament as a description of God’s faithful covenantal love for his people. Steadfast love does not give up easily. Steadfast love is the kind of love Paul will describe in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. The servant asks for a sign- the young woman who not only gives him a drink but also offers to water his camels will be the right one. This may seem a rather arbitrary sign but not to anyone who knows camels! A thirsty camel can drink 20–30 gallons of water at a time and the servant has 10 camels. A young woman offering to water this many camels in the name of hospitality to a stranger will be worth watching. No sooner is his prayer uttered than Rebekah appears. The servant asks for a drink for himself, Rebekah quickly obliges and then without any prompting offers to water the camels as well. The narrator is quick to tell us that this woman is worth watching for other reasons too, the NRSV says she was very fair to look upon. The literal Hebrew is even more direct, ‘She was good to look at.’ We are told, ‘the man gazed at her is silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.’
Drawing water for the camels would have taken an hour at least, so Abraham’s servant has plenty of time to assess Rebekah as a prospective bride: she is beautiful, strong and healthy and generous in her hospitality. Her task finished, the servant is sufficiently persuaded of her suitability that he rewards her with expensive gold jewellery and then enquires about her family, hoping that they might be able to offer him a bed for the night. When Rebekah reveals that she is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, the servant give thanks to God for his faithfulness and steadfast love to his master Abraham and acknowledges that it is God who has led him to his master’s kin. Unlike other episodes in the Abraham saga there has been no direct intervention from God, no voices from heaven but none the less the servant is convinced that God’s providence has been at work in the whole drama. In his words, “The Lord has led me to this place.”
Rebekah runs home and delivers the news about Abraham’s servant who has travelled all the way from Canaan and would like to stay with them. Her brother Laban seeing the gold bracelets and the gold nose ring worn by his sister is immediately impressed and soon the servant finds himself in Rebekah’s home and able to tell the purpose of his errand. Having listened to the servant’s story Rebekah’s parents and her brother Laban are convinced that ‘the thing comes from the Lord’ and give their consent for Rebekah to become the wife of Isaac. There remains only one hurdle: will Rebekah be willing to leave her family and travel hundreds of kilometres to marry a man she has never met? Rebekah’s response is swift and direct, “I will.”
The account of the homecoming and of Isaac’s reception of his bride is beautifully told. Isaac who still mourned the loss of his mother, is out walking in the evening when he sees camels coming. Rebekah riding on a camel gets her first glimpse of her husband, and her response? The Hebrew text says plainly that she fell off the camel! The servant’s task is finished. Isaac takes Rebekah as his wife and he loved her. This is only the second time the verb to love has appeared in Genesis. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, love was not considered an essential ingredient in marriage but Isaac and Rebekah loved each other deeply.
What does this ancient love story have to teach us today? It tells us something about prayer and discerning the right path. As mentioned before God does not actually speak in this narrative but none the less the major players all have a sense of God’s hand behind all that happens. The servant is entrusted with a difficult task: how can he know what woman he should choose? Abraham provides only one condition- she must be from Abraham’s country and kin. Having arrived at the right place he then has to work out how to set about his task of finding the right woman. He uses common sense. Women gather at the well at the end of the day, so if you want to find eligible young women that’s where you go. Given that there may be many potential candidates what can one do to start the process of elimination? In that ancient culture, hospitality to strangers was a sacred duty, so the first criterion should be, find a woman who takes hospitality seriously. Having made those sensible decisions, the servant then commits the matter to God in prayer. He prays that God will grant him success and he calls on God to show steadfast love to his master. He asks God to honour his promises to Abraham. The servant was obviously close to Abraham and would have known the things that God had promised his master: land, many descendants and that through him God would bring blessing to many nations.
In our prayers and in our discernment of the right path to walk on, whether it is choosing a life partner, choosing a career or vocation or even deciding what to do tomorrow, we could do worse than following the servant’s example. Finding God’s will for our lives involves using our head and our heart. It means assessing our gifts and abilities, seeking advice from people we trust and committing the matter to God in prayer, believing that he will lead us and make the path clear. Like the servant we ask God to be faithful to his promises. Paul says that all the promises of God find their yes in Jesus. Jesus has promised that he will be with us in every situation in life and that he will never leave us or forsake us. His spirit, Jesus says, will lead us into all truth. The passage today encourages us to reflect on our lives and to discern the hidden ways God has been with us and guided us, even when we may not have been expecting it. We, like the servant’ may often find that we are led and can then say with the Psalmist, ‘he leads me by the still waters, he restores my soul, He leads me in the paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.’