Sunday, July 9, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9)
We give you thanks, O God of compassion, for the salvation you have revealed to the little ones through Christ Jesus, our wisdom and strength. Teach us to take up his gentle yoke and find rest from our burdens and cares. Amen.
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 followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
All readings for the week:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 with Psalm 45:10-17 or
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or
Zechariah 9:9-12 with Psalm 145:8-14
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
1. How do we know “God’s will” in any given situation?
2. What is your role in the larger story of God’s grace in the world?
3. What difference might it make to leave out certain parts of a story?
4. Is prosperity a blessing?
5. Who are the “Rebekahs” in our own day, whose lives and fates are determined by men?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
A simple little story this week from the first book of the Bible 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 tale, a “transactional 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 at work in Abraham’s life
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 silent prayer, and then we listen in on his conversations with Abraham’s relatives.
Still, we sense that God is very much at work in this scene, and we’re invited to reflect on a question that many faithful folks struggle with at one time or another: God’s providence, and God’s will, in our everyday lives. Now, we don’t often claim to 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?
What about providence?
Scholars put the question of providence in this “little” story in the larger and grander setting 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.” And while providence is an important theological theme here, 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); that’s not necessarily the same thing as our need for personal 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. 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,” an issue that will arise again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures.
What happened “between the lines” we read?
In addition to theological themes, there is the question of lectionary editing: at first glance, we’re tempted to think that omitting certain verses simply serves to shorten a longer story, 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.
What is left out actually changes the story in a significant way, for our passage 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.
Important things happen at the well
Our 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. But there is deeper symbolism here that suggests the connection between motherhood and water (a connection I often mentioned 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.”
Now, Abraham’s servant feels the need for some help in his mission, and 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. (In fact, 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.”) 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.'”
Questions and gifts
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.”
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.
Back to her mother’s house
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.” 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”), 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” (that is, Yahweh). 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.”
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.”
Prosperity and blessing
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 figure out in our own lives.
Trouble even when there’s plenty
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,” he must be referring specifically to this particular story. We haven’t forgotten, 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.” 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!
Is God behind the scenes here?
We reflect, then, on the question of God’s guidance, and the question of Rebekah’s consent. On the first point, we might note 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.” 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. (Just think about that for a few minutes. Do we sense God’s “watchful presence” over every aspect of our lives?)
However, Brueggemann also notes that this “faithfulness of God” is something we often see better after the fact rather than “anticipating” it beforehand. It sounds to me like we can more readily see God at work in the rear-view mirror of experience than on the unknown road ahead.
Not a trivial matter
I know folks who believe that God leads them to good parking spaces (okay, I admit that I think that sometimes as well; I like to think that it’s one way to live a life of gratitude), or specifically puts them in one place or another that proves to be beneficial. However, 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 near 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 claim flies 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.” 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.
What did she agree to?
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 (that is, 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, Sibley Towner, even speaks of “a famously uncommon solicitude for the desire of their daughter.” 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.” 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.” 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.
A precious commodity is still a commodity
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 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 with which they are associated, but commodities nevertheless.” Niditch seems to agree with me that Rebekah’s agreement is limited to the timing of her departure, not the fact of it.
I also remember a conversation I had about this text with the then-General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, the Reverend Geoffrey Black. He would often talk 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 anyone thinking that this was a journey she chose freely.
Women who pay the price
Today, countless 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. Part of the anguish before our nation as it strives to withdraw troops from places of combat (or decides to send them back again), is the awareness 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 offered by American intervention, at least some of the time.
The struggle for peace is a complex one, we remind ourselves even as we celebrate and give thanks for 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 all cultures and times, even in cultures that call themselves Christian and consider themselves “advanced.” No culture can claim either title, if the women and children are not considered fully human, and do not enjoy the same rights as men.
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.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
AnaÔs Nin, The Diary of AnaÔs Nin, Vol. 7: 1966-1974, 20th century
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
Coco Chanel, 20th century
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 20th century
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“When we lose one blessing, another is often most unexpectedly given in its place.”
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us–in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day.”
Maya Angelou, 21st century
“Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
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