a sermon for the Fourteenth Sermon in Ordinary Time on Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
preached on July 3, 2011 at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
This summer, part of the Lectionary is leading us through some of the familiar stories of the Old Testament, reminding us again about the great women and men who started out our human journey with God. After the general tales of creation and a great flood that sound a lot like stories from other traditions of the Mesopotamian region, the Hebrew Bible’s stories finally turn their focus to one particular man, Abraham, and his family, whom God chose to bless out of all the families of the earth.
God instructed Abraham to travel from his homeland of Haran to the land of Canaan that God promised to give to him and his descendants – though the descendants part seemed a bit uncertain until he and his wife were seemingly beyond childbearing age, but God finally gave them their beloved son Isaac.
Today’s story comes at the end of Abraham’s life, long after Isaac’s birth and only a short time after the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Concerned about continuing the family line and maintaining its ethnic purity in the generations to come, Abraham sent his most trusted servant back to Haran to find a wife for his beloved son Isaac.
Upon his arrival in Haran, Abraham’s servant prayed to God for assistance in pulling off this mission for his master, asking God to join in on a pretty specific plan to identify a young woman for Isaac as one who would come to draw water at the well and respond favorably to this stranger’s request for water – and to offer some for his camels too.
Sure enough, just as Abraham’s servant finished his prayer, a young woman was making her way to the spring. When the servant asked her for some water, she responded exactly as he wanted, offering the servant and his camels some water in what should be known as one of the Bible’s great pick-up lines: “Drink, and I will also water your camels.”
As it turned out, this woman was Abraham’s great niece, and so the servant seemed to have hit the jackpot – a generous, helpful, beautiful woman named Rebekah who was not only from Abraham’s homeland but was one of the family. Negotiations proceeded from there, and Rebekah’s family ultimately agreed to send her with Abraham’s servant to marry her second cousin who lived in a distant land. The other details got sorted out pretty quickly from there, and eventually they asked Rebekah if she would be willing to leave for Canaan right away or if she wanted to wait the customary ten days. Rebekah agreed to leave right away, and so they set off for Canaan.
When the journey ended, Isaac was quite glad to welcome her, for he had grieved much since his mother’s death and needed someone to comfort him. Rebekah fit the bill perfectly, so Isaac took Rebekah to be his wife and made a home for her in his dead mother’s tent.
From a 21st century point of view, we have to recognize that this story is fraught with great issues. Psychologists and students of the human condition everywhere surely cringe when Isaac’s new wife is depicted as replacing the lost affection of his dead mother. Abraham’s insistence that his son’s wife be from his own family and homeland ought to concern us a bit too, as it has been used more than once in arguments against interracial marriage and cross-cultural mixing. And just as Abraham in our story last week might be subject to criminal charges of child endangerment today were he nearly to sacrifice his son as he did, the sizable dowry offered by Abraham’s servant to Rebekah’s family surely would raise reasonable concerns today about the possibility of sex slavery and the trafficking of young women for illicit purposes that is dangerously common in our world today.
It’s clear that this is no ordinary marriage between Isaac and Rebekah – it is quite likely very different from much of our experience today in North America, although this kind of arranged marriage with close kin or at least within the primary ethnic group remains quite common in other parts of the world. It is clear to me from this text that the Bible has a very different view of marriage than we do today – even without considering the coming changes around same-sex marriage recently approved here in New York State.
So just as we saw last Sunday, the Bible presents us with unclear, incomplete guidance about something we wish it would just answer for us. Wouldn’t it be great if the Bible just directly told us how to deal with questions of marriage and laid out a clear, straightforward, unchanging pattern for us? Some people think that it does, but unfortunately it does not – on marriage or most any other issue.
The reality is that we can find biblical texts to back up almost any moral position. There are texts that support capital punishment and texts that suggest otherwise. There are texts that seem to speak against abortion and texts that support the right of a woman to choose to end her pregnancy. There are texts that prohibit the eating of shellfish and pork and texts that invite us to give up those restrictions. There are texts that speak against same-sex practice and texts that speak of a broad welcome for all. So amidst all this, we can’t pretend that the Bible is easy and straightforward – we have to look at it in all its complexity, in its strange and different context, with our eyes of faith, hope, and love, seeking to understand what all this really means for us and our world.
Last Sunday, I talked about six guidelines for interpreting the Bible laid out by my seminary theology professor Shirley Guthrie, and I think they’re worth hearing again today in briefer form as we think about yet another strange text. First, “scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own purpose” to tell us who God is and how God is in relationship with the world. Then, “scripture interprets itself” as we look to other passages in the Bible to sort out the meaning of difficult or confusing texts. Third, we must keep Jesus Christ, the best vision of God that we have, at the center of all our readings of scripture. Then, we must follow the “rule of faith” and keep the grace of God in Jesus Christ in mind when we read. Fifth, Guthrie insists that we follow “the rule of love” and keep God’s central commandments to love God and love neighbor at the center of our reading of the Bible. And finally, we have to put what we read in its literary and historical context, remembering that our world and our knowledge are quite different from that of the Bible’s era.
If we look at this text in this way, I think we can look beyond our concerns and our preconceived notions and learn something more from this strange arranged marriage between Isaac and Rebekah. Amidst all the problematic realities here, we see God’s continued concern for all humanity in and through this small family. Just as God promised Abraham at the beginning of this story, God remains with him as his life ends, and God’s promise to make a great nation of his family does not disappear. Just as Abraham journeyed to Canaan, so too Rebekah journeys far from her home to join in this new line. And just as God worked through Abraham and his wife Sarah, God worked in Rebekah as she joined this blessed family and encouraged her favored son in his deception to gain his father’s blessing so as to fulfill the seeming intention of God to honor the second-born rather than the first.
Rather than being an instructional text about the proper process and place for marriage or the way to deal with grief and pain, perhaps these words about no ordinary marriage can speak to us about God’s claim upon and concern for our lives, too, reminding us that it is not up to us to sort everything out for ourselves and showing us that we can trust that God will work in old and new ways to transform our lives and our world.
So may we hear of no ordinary marriage not as instruction for our own family life and social order but rather as encouragement for the journey through this strange and unusual and wonderful witness to God’s power and work so that we too might know the power of God in our lives and the presence of something far beyond our wildest imaginations as we journey near or far. Amen.