Genesis 24 is filled with all sorts of curiosities for the modern reader. Among them are arranged weddings and endogamy (cousin marriage), nose rings and veils, oaths made on naked thighs and the use of comments about camels to determine God’s will.
The lectionary reading for Sunday understandably includes only 23 of the chapter’s 67 verses. The chapter makes liberal use of the ancient story telling technique of repeating blocks of material within the narrative, so the section rehearses the same information several times. In shortening the reading, however, the lectionary’s editor manages to obscure the author’s main point: God is continuing to provide for the fulfillment of his covenant promise.
When Abraham has grown old and his wife Sarah has died, the patriarch charges his unnamed servant to return to the upper Mesopotamian region from which Abraham migrated to obtain a wife for Isaac.
The servant is prohibited from taking Isaac back to Mesopotamia; God has promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants and it is in Canaan that Isaac must stay. To take Isaac back “home” at this stage in the game would be to give up on the promise. The servant should not allow Isaac to be reabsorbed into Mesopotamian culture.
But neither is the servant to obtain a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. Isaac must not assimilate into Canaanite culture, either. Abraham’s demand presages later prohibitions on marrying “foreign” wives, lest one be seduced by their gods and their pagan ways.
The servant returns to Mesopotamia as Abraham directed and waits by a well in the evening “when women go out to draw water.” Abraham’s emissary devises a little test to determine God’s selection. He will ask for a drink. If the woman not only offer’s the servant a drink, but offers to water his camels as well, that’s the one God has chosen.
The Lord leads the servant to a pretty young virgin named Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor. Endogamy was and is a common practice throughout the world. The servant offers presents to Rebekah and she takes him to her family for lodging. The offer of lodging is in keeping with ancient practices of hospitality. When he arrives at Rebekah’s home, the servant explains his mission to Rebekah’s family. He tells them that that Abraham has become rich so they will know that this proposed marriage will be good for Rebekah.
After hearing the servant’s tale, Rebekah’s father Bethuel and her brother Laban (whom we will meet again in the Jacob stories) agree that this is the Lord’s doing and they assent to the marriage. When it actually comes time for the servant to return to Canaan with Isaac’s bride, however, the family asks Rebekah if she consents to making the journey. Only with Rebekah’s approval does the entourage depart.
Rebekah, with her maid acting as a chaperone, returns to Canaan with the servant. In her own way, she is following in Abraham’s footsteps and making her own journey of faith. Upon the group’s arrival at Isaac’s camp, Isaac takes Rebekah into the empty tent of his mother Sarah, indicating that Rebekah has now become the matriarch of the clan. The two marry, and Isaac’s love for Rebekah comforts him in the absence of his mother. (A psychologist might have fun with that last line).
While there are both strikingly bizarre and exceedingly lovely elements in the story, the author of Genesis has two primary interests.
First, God is faithful to his covenant promise. God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars and land upon which to live. The miraculous birth of Isaac in Abraham’s old age was the first step in fulfilling that promise. In providing a bride for Isaac, God moved the fulfillment of his his covenant promise another step forward. Through Rebekah, the next heir of the promise would be born.
The text is filled with language attributing mission success to God. Upon finding Rebekah, the servant prostrated himself before the Lord and prayed:
“Praise the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not withheld His kindness and faithfulness from my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.”(Genesis 24:27)
The servant’s success is a fulfillment of Abraham’s prophetic word:
[Abraham] said to me, ‘The LORD before whom I have walked will send His angel with you and make your journey a success, and you will take a wife for my son from my family and from my father’s household. (Genesis 24:40)
Second, God’s people can’t let themselves be absorbed into the dominant culture. In the story of Abraham, that concern comes out in the prohibition of a Canaanite bride for Isaac. Later Old Testament authors saw intermarriage and the consequent adoption of pagan practices as a threat to the covenant (although there are exceptions in the Old Testament narrative).
Even in the New Testament, Paul, for whom covenant membership was no longer a matter of biological birth, gave the direction, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Is marriage is Paul’s view here? Paul allows Christians to remain with the unbelieving spouses they already have (if the unbelievers are willing) (1 Corinthians 7:12-16), but it seems doubtful that Paul would recommend voluntarily entering such a relationship.
The matter at hand, however, goes far beyond the issue of marriage. How does one keep oneself and one’s community faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob while living in a Canaanite world?