17 July 2016

Sermon – “Rebekah” (Genesis 27:1-17 et al.)

Who among us hasn’t heard it said, “She got to where she is because she was in the right place at the right time”? In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell offers numerous examples of famous people who, in part at least, got to where they did because they happened to be in the right place at the right time—people as disparate as Bill Gates and the Beatles, Andrew Carnegie and Wayne Gretzky. Not that these people did not have an enormous amount of talent and ability, not that they did not put in prodigious hours of hard work, but one of the reasons that they succeeded where others with equal ability and effort did not, was that they happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In the case of all-star hockey players, for example, a hugely disproportionate number (40% in fact) are born in the first quarter of the year. “Why?” asks Gladwell. His answer is that the cut-off date for admission into hockey programmes is January 1—which means that by and large children born early in the year will have a significant physical advantage over those with later birth dates. (Wayne Gretzky’s birthday, by the way, is January 26.)
Once again, Gladwell is not seeking to take away from the incredible talent of Wayne Gretzky or from the abilities of the Beatles or Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates. But what he is saying that in each case there were factors outside their control or effort that contributed to their success, and one of them was being in the right place at the right time.
Well, this morning we meet with a woman who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Rebekah’s story begins while she is off-stage, somewhere in the wings. In the spotlight is Abraham, who is now “old, and well advanced in years”, as the Bible describes him. We can picture him stooped and leaning on his staff as he calls in his oldest and most trusted servant. Nowhere in the engaging story that follows are we given the servant’s name, though many suspect it was Eliezer of Damascus, mentioned in Genesis 15:2. Whoever it was, Abraham sends him out on a crucial mission—to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He makes him swear a solemn oath to go back to his homeland and his relatives and sends him off with ten camels, loaded with costly gifts.

Rebekah’s beauty

As the curtain rises on the next act we find the servant arriving at the city where Abraham’s brother Nahor lived. The sun was waning and the heat of the day had passed and the women had begun to come out to draw water from the local well. So what was he to do now? Pray! And pray he did: “God of my master Abraham, let the girl to whom I say, ‘Lower your jug and give me a drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and let me also water your camels’—let her be the woman you have picked out for your servant Isaac.” And I suppose we could say that the rest was history. Barely had he uttered his prayer when a stunningly beautiful young woman arrived at the well. “Please, do you mind if I take a sip of water from your jug?” “Drink,” came the reply, “and let me get water for your camels, too, until they’ve drunk their fill.”
It’s an absolutely engaging story, and recounted with all the artistry of a master storyteller. But we need to stop there for just a moment to examine its details. First of all, we need to know that a camel that has gone without water for a few days can quaff down nearly a hundred litres. Secondly, the kind of jug that women in the ancient world used for drawing water held maybe ten litres at most.[1] Now do your math. This means that for ten thirsty camels Rebekah may have had to draw from that well as many as a hundred times. No mean task!
If nothing else, this tells us that Rebekah’s beauty was considerably more than skin deep. Alongside her physical attractiveness she had the gift of gracious hospitality, which in spite of all the violence and animosity of recent years is still so evident in middle-eastern lands. Karen and I encountered an example of it when we were travelling through Libya with our son Simon six years ago. Our vehicle needed gas, so we pulled up at a filling station. Unfortunately the large underground tank was being filled at the time, with the result that we had to wait under the blazing sun behind a long line of cars until the process had been completed, and it took more than an hour. When we were finally allowed to proceed, what did we find but men anxiously ushering us to the head of the long queue? We protested that we were happy to wait our turn. But no, we were guests in their country and they would not take no for an answer.
What a precious gift it is when outward attractiveness is matched by an inner beauty and strength of character as well. I think of the young shepherd boy David, who would not allow himself to be cowed by the roaring and threats of the giant Goliath; of Queen Esther, who courageously risked her life by pleading for her people before King Xerxes; of Daniel and his three young companions, who refused to engage in the pagan practices of the Babylonians; and of Stephen in the New Testament courageously sharing his faith in Jesus before the hostile religious council, who saw that his face was like the face of an angel. The Bible warns about “those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart” (2 Corinthians 5:12). Instead it commends to us the infinitely more beautiful fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Rebekah’s serendipity

Rebekah, then, as she first appears in the Scriptures, is a woman of both outer and inner beauty—and in that regard I suspect that she was not unique among the people of Nahor’s city. What was equally important (we might even go so far as to say all-important) was that she happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I wonder if you have ever had that experience? I remember years ago, early in my ministry, for some reason deciding to drop into the shabby flat of a man who had come to me for financial help on a couple of occasions. He had had a longstanding struggle with alcohol but had been sober for some time. As it turned out, as I knocked on his door he was just about to open the first bottle in a twelve-pack of beer that he had just bought from the liquor store. I remember one snowy Christmas morning in the wake of a blizzard when just three people turned up in church. I was one of them and the other two were a woman and her daughter. I had seen her regularly in the congregation but had never got to know her. That morning gave us the opportunity to chat for the first time and it wasn’t long before she was involved in a Bible study group and later became the church’s treasurer. And if you gave me time I could probably come up with a whole series of similar incidents—and I suspect that if you look back on your life you could likely do the same, of being in the right place at the right time.
Now I know that most people—and possibly we ourselves—might write those things off as coincidences. But that was not the case with Abraham’s servant. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham,” he uttered in amazement, “who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives” (Genesis 24:27). He had the spiritual insight to recognize that what was taking place at that moment was not mere happenstance. It was the result of God’s faithfulness, God’s gracious leading. Now that word “led” is found only at this point in Genesis, although it is found elsewhere in the Bible, most notably in Psalm 23: “He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about “… the hidden, inscrutable guidance of God …” “We do not always know the gifts of God in advance,” he continues. “But given a perspective of faith, we can in subsequent reflection discern the amazing movement of God in events we had not noticed or which we had assigned to other causes.” He goes on,
In a culture which grasps for visible signs of faith, which is driven toward scientism, and which falls for too many religious quackeries, the story stands as a foil against easy and mistaken faith. The workings of God are not spectacular, not magical, not oddities. Disclosure of God comes by steady discernment and by readiness to trust the resilience that is present in the course of daily affairs. There is an understatedness about the action of the narrative. But it is not reticent about faith. It is an understatement that is ready to be sustained and profoundly grateful when gifts are given. [2]
Another Old Testament scholar, John Walton, writes about learning to see God’s fingerprints, being guided by the everyday circumstances that he brings into our lives.”[3] The servant recognized God’s leading, but he was not the only one being led that day. It was Rebekah as well. And while we don’t have time to go into the details of how this particular chapter unfolds, it becomes very clear that Rebekah was a woman who both followed God’s leading and was fully prepared to go wherever that took her. In that sense she was a true child of God.

Rebekah’s duplicity

So it is that Rebekah is brought to the future husband she has never met, and we are told that “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her.” And here is where the first shadow of future tragedy begins to cast itself over what so far has been an enchanted love story. The Bible immediately tells us, “And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” Rebekah soon came to discover that she had not only to be a wife to her husband, but a mother as well.[4] Her situation only becomes worse when what should have been a joyful event, the birth of twin sons, turns out to be an omen of enmity and strife. Even in her uterus she could feel the babies jostling with each other. When she spoke to the Lord about it, the answer was clear: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
As they grew up, the two were as different as chalk and cheese. Esau was ruddy and strong, a man’s man, who loved to be outdoors and hunt. By contrast Jacob much preferred to stick around the tents. It was clear that Esau was Isaac’s favourite, no doubt because as the older son he was the natural heir, but perhaps also because he embodied so much of the character that his father lacked. But Rebekah never forgot the prophecy that had been given to her: “… the older will serve the younger.”
Now flash forward many years. Isaac is old and blind and it’s time to think of passing on the torch to the next generation. We have already read it from the Old Testament, so I don’t have to tell you how the story unfolds. Perhaps it was the result of years of living in a passive-aggressive relationship. Perhaps it was just part of the same deceitful streak that we see in her brother Laban. We don’t know and we probably never will. Whatever the cause and with the complicity of Jacob, Rebekah resorts to an act of intolerable deceit to guarantee her son’s place as head of the family and heir to the promises of God.
The result of this duplicitous act is that Jacob does indeed inherit the promise and the blessing of his father. But also the rivalry between the two brothers now becomes open warfare and Rebekah ends up never seeing them again. In her efforts on behalf of one son she loses both. It is a tragic end to a story that began with such promise. And what are we to say to all of this? That the end, no matter how high or pure, does not justify the means, is obvious.
Yet there is also a greater truth at work. Once again Walter Brueggemann cautions us: “This is not a spiritual treatise on morality. It is, rather, a memory of how faith moves in the rawness of experience. We must leave it at that.”[5] And I suppose the apostle Paul was saying much the same when he wrote, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). May we take heart from Rebekah that we have a God who in his infinite grace and mysterious wisdom is able to take our impure motives and sinful acts and use them for his greater purposes. He is the God of the cross.

[1]        John H. Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary), 530
[2]        Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary), 199-201
[3]        Walton, 540
[4]       Clovis G. Chappell, Feminine Faces, 42
[5]        Brueggemann, 229

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