I know I’ve read chapter 24 of Genesis before, though not necessarily as a unit.  But I’ve always been inclined to dismiss it simply as “they found the boy a bride.”  I’ve never really looked at the chapter.

It comes right after the story of Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s purchase of land in the Promised Land for her burial, and her burial.  Abraham, for the first time, is a land owner.  It sounds like Isaac would have been born when she was about ninety years old, give or take a year or two.  She died when she was 127 years old.  So Isaac was probably 35 plus years of age at the time of her death.

Always assuming we’re supposed to pay any attention to ages in a chronological sense. The point really seems to have been that at about 90 years of age, Isaac’s birth was God’s miracle, and that as a pious woman, Sarah lived to be very old.

I mention this because Abraham is supposed to have been about 100 years of age when Isaac was born, and 175 years old when he died.  And there are indications that Abraham’s charge to his servant may have been a deathbed last will and testament.  It seems likely, in the context of this chapter, that Abraham died before his servant returned with a bride for Isaac – which would have made Isaac an unbelievable 75 years old before they tried to find a bride for him.  (And which would mean that the next chapter is chronologically out of order – maybe to make the story in chapter 24 complete as a unit.)

This is true assuming we’re supposed to pay any attention to Isaac’s chronological age in the first place.  Remember, these stories would have happened somewhere around the year 2,000 BCE and would have circulated orally until they were written down somewhere around the year 1,000 BCE.  And biblical people (Hebrews and Greeks) had very little interest in chronological time.  Which makes them very unlike us.  We want to pin down when things happened.  They understood the idea of chronology.  But they really thought along the lines of “when the time was right” things happened.  In other words, things happened in God’s time.  That’s what they thought was important.

So, in God’s time, Abraham (on his deathbed) sent his oldest servant to find a wife for his son, the personification of God’s promise, from among his kin back in his native country.  The wife could not come from among the Canaanites, among whom Abraham lived.  They didn’t worship God.  They didn’t believe in the promise.  And, likely even in Abraham’s time, but certainly in the time this story was written down, the women ran the religious observances in the home and raised the children.

Mind you, I’m not clear Abraham’s kin back in the homeland worshiped God either.  But they more nearly shared the same origin stories.  And although they did not follow Abraham on his journey, they may have been party to conversations with him about his God, and the promises his God made to him.  In any case, such a wife should have more in common with him, and his extended family, than she would have with the surrounding Canaanites.  There should be no divided loyalties.

Abraham extracts a promise from his servant.  He is to find a wife for Isaac from among his kin.  If he finds the right woman, and she refuses to come back with him, he is released from his promise.  But, since that would break God’s promise, Abraham is confident this will not happen.  His servant will return with a bride for Isaac.

The servant leaves with ten camels worth of wealth, as well as his own entourage.  Servants back then could be the equivalent of upper class today.  This was a man of consequence, bearing significant wealth with him.  He’s looking for something without price.  He intends to respect the worth of the gift he is seeking.

But how will he find a woman worthy of running his master’s household and marrying his son?  He has an idea.

His master is known for his generosity and his extravagant hospitality.  He refused the spoils of a victorious war party.  He ran to greet strangers in the heat of the day when he was taking his rest before the tent in Mamre.  He washed their feet and fed them the best he had.  And in doing so, he lived out the primary obligation of Jewish and Christian (and Middle Eastern) people to people outside of their families:  hospitality.  This really is probably the foundation of all ethical obligations to others.

So he prays for a woman who will match his master’s virtue.  He prays (Abraham’s household prays about things that are important) for a woman who will not only provide him, a stranger, a drink at the well, but who will also volunteer to provide a drink for all his camels (and presumably followers) as well.  Such a woman would be a worthy addition to the family.

Rebekah proves to be an answer to his prayer – though there is a moment of suspense when she gives him, alone, a drink, before she runs off to provide for the rest of his party.  The servant gives her rich gifts, and asks who she is.  She modestly gives, not her name, but her lineage.  Which is the correct lineage.  She’s very beautiful.  She is a virgin (I’m puzzled about how this could have been known).  And she invites him to come home with her so that his party can enjoy her families hospitality.

Her brother, Laban, seems to be running things – not her father.  After checking out the rich gifts his sister has been given (a bad indicator for the future) he invites these strangers to share in his family’s hospitality.  They prepare a meal.

But before he will eat, lest there be any misunderstandings, the servant asks that he be allowed to convey his commission.  Abraham, whom God has blessed, and who is brother to Rebekah’s father Bethuel, is seeking a wife for his son Isaac.  Will they consent to this?

Bethuel and Laban allow as how, if this is God’s plan, it must go forward.  So they eat.  Rebekah is given further rich gifts.  And Rebekah’s family is gifted with her bride price.

In the morning, the servant is ready to leave.  Perhaps his hurry is due to worry that his master, Abraham, may die before he can return with Isaac’s bride.  Rebekah’s family asks that he stay for ten days.  I guess it’s possible that the servant doesn’t trust Laban’s intentions for that long too.  In any case, he asks Laban and Bethuel’s permission to take her now (changing Abraham’s instructions about asking her).  The men folk decide to leave it up to her anyway.

So it’s her decision.  It’s her choice.  And she, like Abraham, chooses to follow God’s plan and go, immediately.  (I find myself wondering if she was suspicious of her brother.)  Her family blesses her (in a blessing very much like one given to Abraham earlier) and they go on their way.

It’s interesting, really, that Rebekah’s the one who seems to be the active agent here.  She provides hospitality.  She chooses to Go where God takes her.  And, when they arrive, Isaac is out walking or meditating (the Hebrew is unclear) when he sees camels.  Rebekah sees a man, and inquires who he is.

The servant replies that this is his master (probably indicating Abraham, who always before was his master, has died).  Rebekah veils herself.  The servant has to explain to Isaac who she is.  Then he takes her into Sarah’s tent – I think indicating that she is now the head woman in the family.  And she becomes his wife.

And, it turns out that he loves her.  Which probably does not mean quite what it would mean to us.  But it allows him to find comfort after his mother’s death.

He seems to have been mourning for a long while.

 

Looking back at the action, two things strike me about the story.  The first is how active an agent Rebekah is throughout – even Abraham seems to indicate that she is the one who has to decide to do God’s will or not.  And there are enough parallels that Rebekah can really be seen as a new, female Abraham.  In that culture, this is truly remarkable.

The second thing that strikes me is the centrality of hospitality in both Abraham’s story and Rebekah’s.  I can’t speak for Jews.  But it really seems to me, today, that Christians push hospitality into an optional back seat.  But for Abraham, his servant, Rebekah and for early Christians this was the foundational base duty or virtue that came before everything else (when it came to dealing with other people).  Probably Jesus’ admonition that what we do for the least among us we do for him is again all about hospitality.  So we really cannot see this as something optional for us.

We are to love (agape, in Greek, which means to care for, sacrifice for, take care of) each other – whether we’re talking about other Christians or complete strangers.  We are to provide hospitality – what is needed.  And Rebekah, like Abraham, embodied this virtue.

It makes me think about her in a whole new way.

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