This summer we are exploring the theme “God in unexpected places.” Two weeks ago we began with Hagar and Ishmael, remembering how God came to help them in the wilderness. Last week you heard from Andrew Harris, focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. This week we return to the book of Genesis and hear the story of Abraham’s search for a wife for Isaac.
Abraham is getting on in years, and he has a problem. He has chosen his son Isaac to receive his inheritance and carry on the family line. But Isaac has not yet chosen a wife. The scriptures don’t tell us why Isaac has remained a bachelor so long. At 40, he is far past the traditional marriage age. Is he a playboy? Is he indifferent to women? Is he too focused on his work, tending the land and the flocks? Perhaps Isaac is unmarried because he hasn’t found anyone who pleases his father. Abraham does not want Isaac to marry into the Canaanite community where they live.
Whatever the reason for Isaac’s singleness, Abraham sets out to solve what he perceives as a problem. It’s not at all clear that he consults Isaac. Abraham just sends his oldest and most trusted servant back to his homeland to find an eligible match.
Now you may be wondering, how can a trusted servant find a likely young woman in an unfamiliar town? Abraham’s servant can’t use an online dating app, or scope out the bar scene. As far as we know, he has no experience or expertise in matchmaking. But this guy still knows exactly what to do. He goes to the community well towards the end of the day. He prays to God for help with his endeavor. He waits for the young women to come to fill their water pitchers. And he watches for a young woman who will give both him and his camels a drink.
Those of us who live in Massachusetts in 2017 may have trouble at first recognizing the wisdom of the servant’s selection criteria. Why choose a woman based on whether she offers water to camels? It seems almost random. But take a moment to consider. A woman who offers a drink to a stranger is generous. A woman who brings water for 10 camels is a miracle. Camels are capable of drinking 20-30 gallons of water after a long journey. When she offers to water the servant’s camels, Rebekah is showcasing both extraordinary generosity and tremendous physical strength. She draws and carries 300 gallons of water. Try that the next time you need a good workout.
Abraham’s servant knows what to do, and he is successful: he finds a woman of great generosity and strength. Rebekah also happens to be beautiful, and untouched by men. Plus, she is a first cousin once removed of Isaac – which may sound like it’s not in her favor, but in this time and place, it is. Everything looks favorable for this match. The only thing left to do is persuade Rebekah and her family to go along with it.
Soon a caravan is headed back towards home, with Rebekah and her nurse and her maids accompanying Abraham’s servant. Then, just as the story is about to end, we get two surprises. First, when Rebekah sees Isaac, she is so struck by him that, according to a close translation, she falls off her camel. She is lovestruck. It’s romantic comedy genius. Then, when Isaac weds Rebekah, our narrator tells us that he loves her, and is comforted for the loss of his mother. In the end, a marriage that was arranged to suit a father-in-law and accommodate concerns of culture, and religion, and wealth, and family, turns out to be a love match as well.
One of the great privileges of serving as a pastor is the opportunity to officiate at weddings. In preparation, I meet with couples several times to provide counseling and to plan a wedding service. Folks who may not be that familiar with the bible often ask for help in locating appropriate scripture passages for their celebration. It is at this point that I usually have to explain that the bible isn’t very strong when it comes to depicting married love.
The most moving descriptions of love in the bible are between people who never married. David and Jonathan, whose souls the bible tells us were knit together, were friends or lovers or both – but not spouses. Ruth, who tells Naomi, “Where you go, I will go,” – she is speaking to her mother in law. The Song of Songs describes sexual desire with beautiful poetry, but the lovers meet in secret, it is a forbidden love. And perhaps the most popular wedding text of all time, 1st Corinthians chapter 13, the one that goes “love is patient, love is kind, love is never envious or boastful or rude” – this text is about love in the church, love in the community, not a personal, intimate, monogamous love.
Marriage, when it comes up in the bible at all, is rarely romantic and often deeply troubling. Do not be deceived by those who speak in glowing terms about a narrow and idealized definition of Christian marriage or Christian family. Some of the most dysfunctional families you could possibly find are located in our bible. Plus, if you want to know what Jesus said about marriage, the answer is: almost nothing. His biggest marriage concern seems to be whether or not women are treated fairly in divorce proceedings. Otherwise, marriage is not something he’s interested in discussing at all.
We don’t usually talk about marriage much here at church. Partly because there’s not a whole lot about it in the bible. If we use the scriptures as our starting place, marriages are rarely the focus.
I also shy away from preaching about marriage because not all of us are married. Some folks here are single because of death or divorce. Many folks have never chosen to marry – that group now makes up about 20% of American adults. Our society still often pretends that marriage and even children are necessary achievements of adult life. I don’t want to perpetuate that lie from the pulpit.
In hearing all the marriage anniversary thanksgivings this season, though, I’ve been reminded that marriage still impacts all of us. We’re impacted by the marriages of our parents by birth or adoption, if they ever married. We’re impacted by the marriages of our friends and fellow church members. We’re impacted by any marriages we have entered into ourselves. And those of us who have an ongoing marriage are impacted every day by the gifts and challenges of that relationship.
Marriage impacts all of us. So, when and how should we talk about marriage in church? What does God have to do with marriage?
The bible doesn’t say much about marriage. But it does say an awful lot about human love. Jesus said almost nothing about marriage. But he did say, love your neighbor as yourself. He did say, I give you a new commandment: love one another. He did say, share all you have. Maybe marriage is just one very intimate way that some of us try to live out the love we are all asked to show to all of God’s children.
I’m not so sure that God intervened to find Rebekah for Isaac. I do see God, however, in the attraction and love and the comfort that grew between them. I’m not convinced that God chooses our spouses or our singleness for us. But I do see God in the daily work of love we undertake with those who are closest to us. Who is harder to consistently love than the neighbor who is next to us? Whose love is a greater gift to us than that of those who share our lives?
God, we thank you for human love, imperfect and beautiful. We thank you for the love we have been witnesses of, which has helped us learn how to love and be loved. We thank you for those we have loved, and those who have loved us: family members, lovers, partners, spouses, friends. We thank you for the gift of the covenant of marriage, the holy promises that bind one to another, and for all who work to honor these difficult and wonderful promises in our communities today. Bless us with courage and compassion as we all strive to love one another. Help us to forgive ourselves and one another when we make mistakes. Show us what commitments we are called to make, and renew, and dissolve, in order to more truly follow your call on our lives. Amen.