Sermon Seeds: Chosen Journeys/Rebekah and Isaac

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 9

Lectionary citations
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Additional reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

You’re welcome to share your thoughts and reflections for preaching this Sunday on our Facebook page.

Weekly Theme:
Chosen Journeys/Rebekah and Isaac

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

On a given Sunday, many preachers choose to focus on the Gospel passage from the lectionary readings, but our focus text this week provides some interesting challenges for reflection. This may even be a text we will have to wrestle with, and walk away from the struggle with large questions remaining. At first, it just seems like an edited little story about a family matter between Abraham and his relatives back home in Haran, where he has sent his longtime, trusted assistant, his right-hand man, so to speak, to fetch a bride for his beloved son, Isaac.

We remember Isaac, of course, as the very special and amazing gift of God to ensure that Abraham’s line would go on and multiply, “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). We also remember that these descendants would both occupy the land that God had given Abraham and be a blessing to all the families of the earth as well (12:3). A sweeping promise that sounds global and even everlasting: a promise of blessing that extends to us, far away in both time and place.

God has been very involved, quite busy, in Abraham’s life throughout the past twelve chapters of Genesis, speaking directly with him (and others on his behalf); making covenants with him; providing children, guidance, and great wealth; and perhaps most famously, staying Abraham’s hand from killing his son Isaac in a test, the story tells us, that had come directly from God.

However, this week’s text is very different: we don’t hear God’s voice speaking directly to anyone, in fact, we mostly overhear the servant’s thought-processes and then listen in on his conversations with Abraham’s relatives. Still, God is at work in this little story, and it invites us to reflect on a question with which many faithful folks often struggle: God’s providence, and God’s will, in our everyday lives, even though we don’t hear God’s voice addressing us directly. How, then, do we read the signs around us, and know what God wants us to do? How much of what happens is something God wills to happen, and what is our role in it all?

Scholars put the question of providence in this “little” story in the larger and grander context of “the patriarchal stories,” as Gene Tucker notes, and “the promise of land, progeny, and blessing to all the world – and the constant threat to its fulfillment” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). And while commentators consider providence an important theological theme in this passage, Sidney Greidanus seems to caution us against generalizing from this story, which simply and specifically addresses Israel’s need for a new mother now that Sarah has died (Genesis 23), to our need for guidance, for example, about our next move in life. Greidanus observes that Abraham’s instructions to his servant are his last recorded words in the Bible, and there is a sense that the torch must be passed to a new generation so that those innumerable descendants will be able to inherit the land promised to them. To make sure the plan unfolds as it should, says Greidanus, the trusted servant will take off on a four-hundred mile journey with “ten thirsty camels” and a treasure worthy of a new wife for the heir of the “super-rich” Abraham (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). It’s important that this wife come from the same family and not from the Canaanites, the text emphasizes; Holly Hearon notes that this insistence “anticipates future tensions around marriage with women outside the kinship group” (New Proclamation Year A 2008), an issue that will arise again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In addition to theological themes, there is the question of editing: at first glance, we’re tempted to think that omitting certain verses simply serves to shorten a longer story for congregational use, as there appears to be repetition in the storytelling (an aid to memory in an oral culture). A closer and longer look, however, prompts other questions and leads us onto additional paths of reflection that is not always comfortable, and not too agreeable to the theme of “Chosen Journeys.” What is left out actually changes the story in a significant way, for our lection reads as if the servant’s request for Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife leads her father and brother to ask for her to consent, for her to choose whether to journey from home and family to marry a stranger, and perhaps never see her family again. (In this way, of course, Rebekah is a lot like Abraham, but that doesn’t seem to be the storyteller’s main point.) And yet Rebekah is not asked “yes” or “no,” just “when” she will do what her male relatives have arranged.

Our lectionary passage begins after, and recounts, important things that have happened back at the well between Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, who had come to draw water. Wells, Richard Pervo observes, “served as a kind of ‘singles bar’ in ancient villages,” presumably a good place to find a prospective bride (New Proclamation Year A 2011). But there is deeper symbolism here that suggests the connection between motherhood and water (a connection I often mention when giving a tour of the Amistad Chapel and pausing by the beautiful baptismal font at its entrance). Susan Niditch notes the “ancient intuitive acknowledgments of our watery origins on earth and in mother, and of the source of life upon which we continue to depend” (The Women’s Bible Commentary).

Now, Abraham’s servant feels the need for some help in his mission, and in effect asks God for a sign so he’ll know he’s on the right track in choosing a candidate to bring back to his master’s son; I’m puzzled that Walter Brueggemann writes, “There has been no sign or signal. There has been no seeking after or requesting guidance, but only the willing acknowledgment after the fact” (Genesis, Interpretation). In any case, Rebekah appears to be that excellent prospect: the Hebrew word translated as “virgin” (betulah), according to W. Sibley Towner, also means “a marriageable young woman.” She is not just young and marriageable but also chaste and beautiful, and very kind and solicitous as well; her “courtesy even exceeds what was stipulated,” Towner writes, for “she calls the servant ‘My lord'” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion).

As we listen to the servant later telling Rebekah’s brother Laban about what had happened at the well, we encounter our first problem. A careful – and closer – reading of the entire chapter will note that the servant makes some significant changes to the story: for example, he says that he asked her whose daughter she was before he gave her the expensive jewelry, “a serious gift,” Towner calls it, and “probably the bride-price” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion). Back in verses 22-23, however, we read that he first showers her with gold rings and bracelets and then asks her whose daughter she is. In a way, it is quite a leap of faith to give the “bride-price” to someone if you don’t even know that she’s a member of the family that you’re seeking. Once he hears that Rebekah is Abraham’s relative, he thanks God for leading him to the right person.

It’s also interesting that, when he asks her if there’s room in her “father’s house” for him to spend the night, she identifies herself not only by her father’s name but also her grandmother Milcah’s. Towner notes that this is unusual: “Perhaps Milcah was a woman of legendary virtue” (Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion). Then, Rebekah runs back, the text says, and tells “her mother’s household about these things.” Still, it’s the men – her brother Laban, and then her father, Bethuel, who take over from there.

Before hearing them claim that this match is obviously God’s will (as Gene Tucker puts it, a match “made in heaven”; Preaching through the Christian Year A), we note that scholars are not quite in agreement about who “God” is to these relatives. Holly Hearon says that Rebekah “as yet, has not met the God of Abraham” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Terence Fretheim acknowledges that the brother’s speech “invites speculation; certainly the narrator understands that the Yahwistic faith was established within Abraham’s family before Abraham left for Canaan (see 31:53). Such faith apparently continues outside of Abraham’s family and the specific promises that undergirded his relationship with God” (Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Perhaps the fullest and most entertaining perspective on this question comes from Walter Brueggemann, who observes that “Laban speaks here as a Yahwistic believer, not only knowing the name, but conceding everything to him,” although he has also “just seen the rings, bracelets, and camels,” and “may not be a true believer, but he is no fool, either!” Brueggemann finds humor in the scene where this “Yahweh’s prosperity is quite an earthy matter: (a) proper genealogy, (b) good looks, (c) many camels, (d) a virgin (how could he know?).” While the theme of blessing runs through this story, Brueggemann notes that “[t]he blessings of heaven come packaged for earth” (Genesis, Interpretation).

Now, about those blessings, and all those expensive gifts: “prosperity” is prominent in this passage, especially in those negotiations and even in the way the servant introduces himself: while he makes it clear that Abraham’s wealth is a blessing straight from God, he is nevertheless making it quite clear how excellent a marriage prospect Isaac is, as the heir to all those blessings.

It’s only natural that we might ask that age-old question about wealth being a sign of blessing, or not. Terence Fretheim basically says that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t: “The author does not claim that wealth and success are always due to the blessing work of God.” Like so many things in life, the origin of our wealth as blessing is something we humans have to discern (Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible).

In the case of Abraham, it is clearly so. However, when Brueggemann says that Abraham’s whole family, Abraham’s whole world, is so “richly blessed” that “[t]here is no need for conflict. Everything is right and good” (Genesis, Interpretation), he must be referring specifically to this particular story. We remember, after all, back in Chapter 13, when Abraham, then called Abram, could not live in peace with his nephew Lot because “the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock” (13:6-7). Everything is not always right and good in the presence of great material wealth, a lesson that we seem to need to learn anew in each generation.

Another important thing that can be said about this God and the question of blessing is back at the beginning of the story, although we might pass over it because we’re so used to hearing these words, when Abraham speaks of “the God of heaven and earth” (24:3). Terence Fretheim reminds us that the theme of blessing throughout this story illustrates God’s track record with blessing Abraham, which “involves creation,” although here, “in and through the ordinary, everyday workings of this family rather than in miraculous or extraordinary events.” Thus, Abraham’s extended family, and all of his descendants today, including us, are to be “crucial vehicles for the leading and blessing work of God in daily affairs” (Genesis, New Interpreter’s Bible). What a powerful way to think of our vocation as people of faith: to be “vehicles” for God’s blessing and creative work in the world!

There are at least two more points for reflection here: first, the question of God’s guidance, which the servant receives at the well, along with the providence of God that makes it possible for the promise to be fulfilled through the marriage of Isaac and and his kinswoman Rebekah. Second, there is the question of Rebekah’s consent.

On the first question, we can reflect on the role of God behind the scenes in this story, working through events and people if not explicitly appearing as a character in the story. Sidney Greidanus sees God at work, leading the servant and “gently [molding] the hearts of Rebekah and her family” (The Lectionary Commentary: The OT and Acts). Brueggemann notes the “high theology” of this passage, and claims that it “offers a world-view in which there are no parts of experience which lie beyond the purpose of God,” under whose “watchful presence” all things unfold. However, Brueggemann also notes that this “faithfulness of God” is something we often see better after the fact rather than “anticipating” it beforehand (Genesis, Interpretation). It sounds to me like we can see God at work better in the rear-view mirror of experience than on the unknown road ahead.

I know folks who believe that God leads them to good parking spaces (okay, I admit that I think that sometimes as well; it’s one way to live a life of gratitude), or specifically puts them in one place or another that proves to be beneficial. Richard Pervo cautions us just a bit about the risk of a faith that is “selfish and oriented to trivia. Belief in providence means that no person or situation is utterly beyond redemption.” Pervo also recognizes that this Sunday falls on an important holiday weekend in the United States, and offers this perspective for connecting the text with our historical setting, in a richly blessed country that nevertheless “is not the beneficiary of peculiar and particular promises.” (This seems to fly in the face of the notion of American exceptionalism.) Pervo compares Abraham to our founding fathers and our tendency to idealize both: “Do we endorse all that they did? Certainly not! From their faith and vision we gather inspiration and hope” (New Proclamation Year A 2011). In fact, we get into a lot of trouble when we endorse – and try to codify – all that founding fathers – in faith or nations – are reported to have said and done.

Finally, there is the thorny question of Rebekah’s consent to marry Isaac. Even though scholars see Laban and Bethuel as simply recognizing the will of God in the appearance of Rebekah and her offer just as the servant had asked (as a sign from God), the reality is that Rebekah’s male relatives were the ones who said (and needed to say, for the transaction to occur), “Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken” (24:51). Several scholars seem to miss something very important here, and one even speaks of “a famously uncommon solicitude for the desire of their daughter” (Sibley Towner, Genesis, Westminster Bible Companion), while another, James Newsome, claims that “[t]he men’s view that ‘the thing that comes from Yahweh’ may seem to steal the issue, yet Rebekah is nonetheless allowed to speak for herself” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

Newsome also claims that it is “a commentary on the text’s high regard for women that unlike brides in some societies, both ancient and modern, Rebekah cannot be coerced.” And Gene Tucker says that Rebekah “immediately accepts the request to go with the servant to a strange land and become the wife of a man she never met” (Preaching through the Christian Year A). Perhaps it would be closer to the story to move the word “immediately” right after the word “go,” for that’s the only time I can see Rebekah being asked to consent to anything: she agrees to go sooner rather than later, but the going itself was decided by her father and brother, not by her.

My own resistance to the views of these several scholars was confirmed by two other sources (in addition to a close reading of the entire story). Susan Niditch’s commentary reminds us that the men make the decisions here (although they are “mediated by the women”), that the women are “extremely valuable commodities as precious as the water ith which they are associated, but commodities nevertheless.” Niditch seems to have read the same commentaries as I have, and agrees with me that Rebekah’s agreement is limited to the timing of her departure, not the fact of it (The Women’s Bible Commentary).

While I was wrestling with this reflection, I had the occasion to speak with the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, the Reverend Geoffrey Black. He often talks with me about preaching, so he was immediately engaged when I brought up this text that I was working on. He felt the same way about Rebekah’s consent, and the irony of the “Chosen Journeys” theme. Today, many women in many cultures (including our own) have little choice whether (or even when) to go or to stay, and even those who appear to have a choice often find themselves, for example, trapped in violent relationships that they cannot escape without endangering others, or without suffering desperate poverty. Even as our nation debates the timing and wisdom of withdrawing troops from places of combat or in fact, sending them back again, we are aware of the price that may be paid by women who experienced hope instead of despair because of the promise of freedom and a degree of self-determination. The struggle for peace is a complex one, we remind ourselves on this weekend when we celebrate our freedom and re-affirm our hope that all people in all places will enjoy that same human right. In particular, this is a story that leads to reflection on the experience of women in almost all cultures and times.

Like people in all times, we long not only to receive blessings, but to be a blessing as well, to become “thousands of myriads” of blessings, like Abraham, yes, but also like the women – Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, and their many daughters, who have made it possible for the “countless” descendants of Abraham to inherit and enjoy the promises of God, and to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, just as God has said it should be.

Additional reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30:

Last week, Jesus closed his instructions to his disciples, before sending them out on mission, with words of blessing for anyone who welcomed them with even that simplest of gestures, a cold cup of water. As we move into Chapter 11, today’s lection omits important parts of the story that might help us to understand it a little better. By this time in the story, Jesus has tasted the bitter cup of rejection rather than welcome. After sending out his disciples, he himself went out on a mission to “their cities,” teaching and proclaiming his message by healing the sick, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor. And those cities, we know from the edited verses (11:20-24), closed their hearts and minds to him.

In any case, the approach of Jesus to mission is still a good model for us today if we too want to “evangelize” – to “bring the good news,” which, according to Jesus, has to do with healing and new life and justice. That’s how you’ll know it when you see it: Jesus points this out to the disciples of John the Baptist who come to check him out on behalf of their teacher. Today we might ask if our own ministry would identify us in the same way. Can people “hear and see” the good news in the way we live as much as in the words we say or the identity we claim as followers of Jesus?

Just before today’s passage, Jesus speaks of signs and prophets and the coming of the reign of God and our seeming inability to recognize or accept it. Perhaps, in our own turn, we are “this generation,” too. We’re like children who can’t make up our minds about what we want or need, or even how we feel, whether to mourn or to dance. Holly Hearon’s words apply to our generation just as much as to that ancient one: “In neither case is ‘this generation’ satisfied with what they are hearing and seeing. Perhaps they want something in between.” But Jesus isn’t ever “something in between,” and many people found it hard to accept him, even in person, even after witnessing his “deeds of power.” Hearon observes that “we can become so locked into this kind of negative response that we miss the real thing…” (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Jesus: not something-in-between, but “the real thing.” And the cities he visited, where he had worked “most of his deeds of power,” were among those locked in a negative response. The lectionary omits these “woe” verses in the middle of today’s passage, but they’re key to getting a sense of what is happening here.

There are plenty of people in the Gospels who probably considered themselves learned and even wise. But Jesus’ view of that kind of wisdom as an impediment to faith is no anti-intellectual defense of ignorance, but an impatience with closed hearts and minds. Thomas Long’s beautiful commentary on the Gospel of Matthew describes a world profoundly changed by the coming of Jesus, made new, shining in the light of God (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

Even in that bright light of a new day, however, it’s hard to recognize “the real thing” – even in Jesus himself. The categories and things that people were used to (“the way we’ve always done it”?), the customs and traditions and even the expectations had hardened and grown heavy, and had become a burden to the people of God. And yet they had to live in hope: “Every generation,” Long writes, “wants something good for itself. The problem is the packaging: John and Jesus do not look like saviors…the wrong diet, the wrong music, the wrong companions, the wrong words. ‘This generation,’ like all generations, is scanning the screen of history, looking for hope, searching for salvation. But they cannot commit to either John or Jesus….” Long, however, exhorts them (us) to note the new and wonderful things that are happening because of the coming of the reign of God – healing, resurrection, and “the poor have finally heard some music they can kick up their heels to – and that is the essence of wisdom…” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). While we calculate and compare and weigh our options, the hearts of “infants,” of little ones, of insignificant ones, are open to the Good News that will change their lives (and ours). Meanwhile, how can the poor in our day hear music that they “can kick up their heels to” – and who is most in need of the wisdom to acknowledge the path to such a thing?

Once again, however, even this shortened passage is too much for one sermon. The most likely focus of most preaching this Sunday comes at the end of the reading, when Jesus invites all of us who are weary and bearing heavy burdens to find rest in him. This is one of the most familiar and loved passages from Scripture, undoubtedly one of the most frequently quoted, painted, etched, and printed reassurances in the Bible, right up there with “Do not be afraid.” After four Sundays in a row of hearing about the challenges and costs of discipleship, a little talk of sacred rest is, perhaps, a good thing.

Jesus uses the “yoke” as a metaphor for discipleship, but today, most of us have never seen, let alone felt, a yoke. Still, we get the idea, that it’s something hard and heavy and burdensome, and Jesus is up-ending our perception (as usual) by calling his yoke “easy,” and his burden “light.” There’s an even more helpful way for us to hear his words: David Holwerda tells us that a yoke “both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility. The question confronting humanity is, whose yoke or what yoke does one put on? No one lives without a yoke…” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). It reminds me of the speaker who once said (and I’ll never forget how heartfelt her exhortation was), “Everyone gives their heart to something; be sure that what you give your heart to is worthy of it.” Ironically, compared to the difficulty of fulfilling the demands of many laws and rules, this “work” of Jesus is more like “freedom,” according to Paul, Holwerda writes. He explains the beauty of this invitation “to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself. Love is a gentle yoke, not burdensome or wearying, but light, easy, pleasant….one thing more is necessary: to learn from Jesus himself how to walk the ancient paths that lead to the peace and rest of the kingdom of God and to inheriting the earth” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Do love of God, and love of neighbor, feel like a “gentle yoke” to you?

We make things more complicated than they need to be, instead of accepting, like “infants” (or small ones, or insignificant ones), the great gifts of God. Charles Cousar speaks of our difficulty in trying to figure God out, but “God simply eludes the human grasp….” However, “infants,” he says, “make no pretense of knowledge. Whatever they have is given them….[and they] let God be God on God’s own terms” (Texts for Preaching Year A). That’s not our way, unfortunately, and Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon on this text, admits that, like many of us, she has tried to figure out how to accomplish her own salvation on her own, like our childhood practice of earning “merit badges”: “I thought that the way to find rest for my soul was to finish my list of things to do and present it to God like a full book of savings stamps, but as it turned out that was not the ticket at all….” How many of us, in the church and out of the church, are busy filling up that book of stamps and collecting those merit badges? But Jesus offers us, Taylor says, “a lighter yoke…because it yokes us with one who is greater than we are, and with whose strong help we can bear any burden….[these words] assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone but those who are willing to share their loads…by entering into relationship with the one whose invitation is a standing one… (“The Open Yoke” in The Seeds of Heaven).

What are the burdens that the people of your congregation are carrying? When they come to church, what are they carrying with them into the pew? What are you, as a preacher, bringing with you, bearing on your heart and shoulders and mind, as you approach the pulpit? Love and commitment have the power to make a difficult task seem more bearable, perhaps even a joy. (Being in love, raising children, having a passion for our work remind us that this is true.) What are the deepest satisfactions and most profound comforts that the people of your congregation experience? How might the “yoke” of which Jesus speaks be so satisfying to the human soul that it is experienced as light rather than heavy?

What kind of “rest” does Jesus promise, if we are disciples on a long journey, if we are carrying a cross? How do those two messages fit together? As you look around your congregation and at the world around you, who are the “infants,” the “little ones” who “get” the message of Jesus and the reign of God? Ironically, a lot of learning and study can perhaps lead us to have a cynical edge, if education leads us down paths of disbelief or limited imagination. Have you ever had that experience? What do you think makes human beings get “set in our ways” – what is that about? What makes people unwilling to open their hearts and minds to the gospel? What are the characteristics and behavior that your congregation expects in a religious leader? Would that leader resemble Jesus the guest at the feast more or less than John the Baptist, the ascetic? Why do you think people evaluate prophets and teachers by outward appearance and personal practices (“glutton and drunkard” and “has a demon”) more than by the heart of the message they preach? What blocks you from opening your heart to the good news? When have you experienced those blocks being removed by grace, and your life transformed? When has that happened in the life of your congregation? What does it mean to have a soul truly at rest? When are those moments and times when God gives us a quiet space, a time of relief and rest?


Lectionary texts

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’

“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’

“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”

And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads;
   may your offspring gain possession
   of the gates of their foes.”
Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and f