Marriage – it’s an odd and wonderful institution, isn’t it? Over the centuries, as we learned last week in adult forum, marriages came in all kinds. In ancient times, people married to make alliances, to join property, to make people who were enemies into friends, to bring wealth into a household, to create a whole bunch of farm hands, and sometimes even because they were in love. Marriage is at the heart of two of our readings this morning, so let’s think about that state of relationship today, as we talk once again about Abraham and Isaac.
We ended our story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah last week with the observation that Isaac was changed in some very fundamental ways by that experience. It was a moment that proved his father’s faithfulness, but it seemed to break something in Isaac. He was never the same again.
We hear more of Isaac’s story today in the reading from Genesis. Isaac is now forty years old, still not married. Abraham must be getting worried about the guy. After all, God promised that there would be a mighty nation, as numerous as stars in the skies. How is that supposed to happen if Isaac doesn’t get married and start populating that nation? And now he’s sitting around moping because his mother Sarah has died. It just doesn’t seem like the boy – now a man – is really not the marrying kind. Horrific thought! Time to do something!
So Abraham steps in – powerful fathers have a tendency to do that. He will get his son a wife. Well, he won’t – he will send a trusted servant out to take care of the matter. He gives the servant some instructions about what the bride should be like. She should not be a Canaanite woman, because those Canaanites, they’re all trouble. She should be a member of Abraham’s own tribe. She should be willing to drop everything and come to where Abraham and Isaac are encamped, and not insist that the family come to her place, as would be the norm.
The servant swears that he will do this, but he wonders why Abraham has not given instructions on whether the girl should come from a wealthy family, or whether she should be beautiful, or whether she should be very young so as to provide lots of children to Isaac…what kind of matchmaker would the servant be if he didn’t consider all the qualities that Abraham has neglected to mention? Should she be a strong woman and good manager to help Isaac run the household, or should she be gentle and kind? Should she be lively, a good singer, to entertain the sometimes withdrawn man she is to marry? It is so hard to know what will be the right match, to turn this somber man into the marrying kind. So he comes up with a test to see if the girl is a good match for his master’s son. He prays to God about it:
Genesis 24:12-14 And he said, "O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 Let the girl to whom I shall say, 'Please offer your jar that I may drink,' and who shall say, 'Drink, and I will water your camels'-- let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master."
What happens? The beautiful Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel, comes out to fill the family’s water jugs, and there is the servant. He asks for a sip of water. She generously gives him some, and offers to water the camels as well. Bingo! We’ve got a winner! He grabs some fine jewelry and hands it to her – what young woman doesn’t like a nice gold nose-ring and bracelets? – and goes and talks to her brother, asking for her hand in marriage to Isaac. It doesn’t hurt when he tells Laban that Abraham is very, very rich. Laban says, “Sure, take her; this is God’s work, so what can we say?” And off goes Rebekah, although her family wants her to stay a bit longer, so the servant has to insist they must leave immediately. The beautiful Rebekah, with only her nurse and a few other women servants to be a reminder of the home she had left, goes off on a camel to her new husband, her new family, a new life. Her family has sent her off to be the wife of the son of a rich man, and to give him many children. So women’s lives were defined in those days.
And what happens when she reaches Abraham’s encampment?
Isaac spots the camel train first, and goes out to see for himself. Rebekah sees him, slips off her camel, asks the servant if he’s the groom, and when she hears that he is, she covers herself – modesty is important – and approaches, for the first time, the man to whom she is betrothed.
We don’t hear the conversation between them. We are once again given only the briefest outline of the action. But the story ends with Isaac taking Rebekah into his mother’s tent, taking her as his bride, and falling in love with her. It seems Isaac is the marrying kind, after all. And the last sentence of the story?
“So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
That was unexpected!
The great gift of Rebekah in that moment was not her beauty, or her family lineage, or the children she would bear to continue to fulfill God’s promise.
No. It was simple loving comfort.
Love as a balm to a wounded soul. Love as gift from God in human form. And Isaac was needy enough – humbled enough in his grief – to see it as the gift he had craved, perhaps even from that moment when he learned his father was willing to sacrifice him, certainly from the moment when he lost his dear mother.
We tend not to think of marriage in ancient times in those terms. We think of the alliances, of the temporal reasons that people married, particularly because parents often arranged their children’s marriages for their own purposes. But this time, God – the same God who seemed so difficult and demanding last week – delivers a marriage that is pure love. It is a reminder that God’s actions, even the most incomprehensible ones, are underpinned by God’s deep love for us.
We human beings may think we are in control of our relationships, that we pick the person whom we will marry, that we can control them (and us), that our marriage is defined by our children or our homes or the places we go on vacation, but underneath all our frantic attempts to make our matches, just as frantic as the poor servant Abraham sent out, there is the steady river of God’s love, shaping and guiding and hoping for us to find a human representation of the many-faceted love that God gives us. We are all the marrying kind, in the end, whomever we are given to have as our partner in life, and that is the ultimate reminder that it is God who gives the gift. Rejoice in love, rejoice in companionship, in partnership, however it may come, whoever it may be. Rejoice. It is a gift from the one whose love knows no bounds. Rejoice! Amen.