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How Rebekah Got a Husband
(01/22/95 and 07/07/02)
by Tony Grant
In "The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare says,
The ancient saying is no heresy:
Hanging and wiving goes by destiny.
I have often thought it strange that the "ancient saying" Shakespeare quotes should put hanging and marriage together, as if they had something in common. Perhaps some would agree that hanging and marriage are much the same--though, I hasten to add that I do not.
Genesis 24 is about marriage. An apt title for the chapter would be "How Rebekah Got a Husband."
As we look at the chapter, we see that Isaac was not hunting for a wife. It was Abraham who decided that he ought to get married. Vv 58-67 are the end of the story. All of Chapter 24 is the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac. The way they came to be married is different from the way people get married today, though it was not uncommon in the Orient 4,000 years ago. Actually it is not that uncommon in the Orient today.
We read in the early verses of this chapter that "Abraham was old, and well strickened in age." and he felt that he had one duty left to perform. He had to get a wife for Isaac. Now I realize in our society that it is not the duty of the father to arrange marriages for his children, but it was his duty in the Middle East in 2000 b.c.
That was a family-oriented society and families arranged marriages. Love was not considered to be a primary reason to get married. Families arranged marriages for reasons of bloodlines, heritage, money, political influence. They tended to believe that love was something that developed between husband and wife after marriage. Isaac, for example, never even saw Rebekah until she was brought to him to be his wife. We read in V67 that "she became his wife; and he loved her." After they were married, he loved her. Now that is totally alien to our way of looking at marriage. On the other hand, when we consider all the unhappiness and suffering generated by bad marriages today, and when we consider our divorce rates, we must admit that their way worked at least as well as our way does.
In any case, it was Abraham's duty in his time and place to arrange a marriage for his son, so he called his steward. His steward plays a major role in this chapter, but he is not named. We find that strange, but perhaps there is a theological reason for it that we will discuss later. Now it seems that Abraham thought that he was likely to die before this marriage project was finished, so he bound his steward with a sacred oath to do three things. First, he had him promise that he would not take a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites (V3). Second, The steward promised to go to the relatives of Abraham in Syria to get a wife for Isaac. Thirdly, the steward promised that he would on no account take Isaac out of the land of Canaan in order to get for him a wife.
The purpose of these promises was to safeguard the promises that God had made to Abraham that were to belong to Isaac when Abraham was dead. Abraham did not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite because he wanted Isaac to avoid contamination with the immoral practices of Canaanite religion. And Isaac could not go back to Syria and marry and settle down because that would mean rejection of God's promise of Canaan as the promised land.
So Abraham's standards for choosing a wife for Isaac were religious and spiritual, and those are still good standards today. We should not marry people who have no spiritual discernment and who therefore would practice every kind of immortality. We should marry those who believe the same promises of God that we do.
Beginning in v10, we have the a long story of how the servant of Abraham took ten camels worth of provisions and gifts and made the lengthy journey from Canaan to "the city of Nahor." Perhaps some family history is in order. Abraham was born in Ur of Mesopotamia. He had two brothers: Nahor and Haran. Haran had one son, Lot, but Haran died in Ur. Abraham's father Terah took his family and moved out of Ur into Syria. There he founded a village named after his dead son, Haran (11:31). Apparently Nahor founded another village nearby.
The Servant of Abraham arrived in the village of Nahor and he had his camels kneel down before a well, and he prayed to God that whichever girl would be willing to water his camels would be the girl for Isaac. Now we might ask, why did he not just water his own camels and look for a wife for Isaac in some more reasonable way. For two reasons. First of all, women generally carried the water. I mention that with some hesitation. Not long ago I was using this chapter for a Bible study at White Oak apartmens, and I got to this point and said the same thing. One lady said, "Not only did the women carry water, they did everything else, and the men talked about doing it." Perhaps so, but another reason for this man's prayer for a girl to water his camels was that it was not his well. It was the village well, and strangers did not use it without permission. So Abraham's steward stood by the well and prayed.
His prayer was answered immediately. In V15, we are told that before he was done speaking, Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor, Abraham's brother, came to the well, and, when asked, agreed to water his camels. The servant was overjoyed when he found out that this girl who answered his prayer was a relative of Abraham, so he gave her rich gifts and when to her family to negotiate for her hand. He told them the whole story, how his master was wealthy, how Isaac was the only heir to all that wealth, how they were distant kinfolks, how he had prayed to God and Rebekah had answered his prayer. He had all kinds of gold and silver and rich garments, and he made presents of these to the family and to Rebekah.
Apparently the family was much impressed. We read in v51 that Laban her brother and Bethuel her father agreed after some brief consideration that Rebekah would marry Issac. Rebekah was not consulted much in the matter. This was the way things were done in that time. Rebekah was only a teenager. Her family would not have considered her old enough or experienced enough to have anything worthwhile to say on the subject of her marriage.
However, when Laban and Bethuel had decided that the marriage should take place, we do read that Rebekah decided when the marriage would take place. The servant of Abraham wanted to leave immediately and take Rebekah back to Isaac. The family wanted to wait a few days, but they left this decision with Rebekah, and she shows us that she was a very decisive person. She said, "Let's do it," and so she left immediately with the servant.
In V63, we are told that Isaac had gone out in the open country to mediate and pray. That tells us something important about Isaac. He was a person who meditated on God and prayed to God. Our prayer should be: Lord, send us more Isaacs and make us more like Isaac.
The verse says that as Isaac was meditating and praying, he looked up and saw the camels coming. When Rebekah saw Isaac, she asked the servant, "Who is that man?" and the Servant told her that it was Isaac. Then she veiled herself according to the oriental custom that the bride must appear veiled before her betrothed. And after Isaac was told all the things that happened on the journey, he married her and loved her.
Now we can study this chapter in several ways. We can study it for what it as to say about ancient Middle Eastern marriage customs. Or, we can just read the chapter as good literature, as something that is just fun to read--which it is, but that is not primarily our purpose. Our purpose is to seek the spiritual meaning. Our question is what is the spiritual lesson that we can learn from this story of how Rebekah got a husband.
It is this: This chapter symbolizes the gospel. Abraham represents God who would make a marriage for his son. The marriage represents the union between Christ and his people. Isaac represents Christ. Now we do not want to overdo comparing Isaac with Christ. In this marriage chapter, Isaac seems passive--it is all done for him--whereas in the gospels we see Christ struggling for his people, even dying for his people. But there is a sense in which Christ recognized that he was like Isaac. In John 17: 6, Jesus says, "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word." Jesus recognizes that God is in control of the world, and thus he, Jesus, is like Isaac, waiting for his bride, waiting for God's predestined people to come to his church.
The unnamed servant in Genesis 24 represents the Holy Spirit who does not speak for himself, but for the bridegroom to win the bride. Thus, Christ says in JH16:13-14, "When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you." The unnamed servant of Abraham took of the things of Abraham to win Rebekah for Isaac. Even so the Holy Spirit takes of the things of Christ, takes of the promises and privileges of the gospel, to win us for Christ. The purpose of the Holy Spirit is the same as that of the servant of Abraham. The spirit brings the bride to the bridegroom. RM8:11 "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken you mortal bodies by his spirit that dwelleth in you." That means that the Holy Spirit was the power that "raised up Jesus from the dead." If we have that spirit, then that power will so enliven our souls that we will be with Christ now and forever.
To continue our symbology, in GN24, Rebekah represents the church, the people of God. IPT1:8-9, "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls." Like Rebekah, we accept Christ having seen him only with the eye of faith, and Peter assures us that we will receive the reward of faith, which is eternal life.
The OT used the symbol of marriage to describe Israel's relationship with God. For example, Isaiah 54:5, "For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name." It was promised by the prophets that despite the sins of Israel God would make, with a restored and forgiven Israel, a new and everlasting marriage-covenant (Ezekiel 16:60-63). The NT sees this prophecy as fulfilled in the marriage covenant between Christ and his church. Remember that in a biblical marriage, husband and wife become one flesh. This is a description of the believer's relationship with Christ. For example, Ephesians 5:25 says, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it." I have heard this verse preached on as showing us what the relationship between husband and wife should be, but that was not the main point of the verse. The main point of EP 5 is to teach us what our relationship to Christ should be. Our Christ relationship is a marriage relationship. We are untied with Christ. Paul says in IICR11:2, "I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." The Apostle Paul is writing in spiritual terms. If we believe in Christ, then Christ is our spiritual husband.. We have such a marriage relationship with Christ that we are one flesh with him.
The marriage relationship is the deepest, richest, and most satisfying personal human relationship. It is an experience of surrender to each other, even of absorption in each other. It is an experience of service without compulsion, of love without conditions. In marriage two persons who have chosen each other out of all humankind bind themselves to be good-humored, affable, discreet, forgiving, and patient with respect to each other's frailties and perfections, and promise to do this to the end of their lives. Sidney Smith said, "Marriage resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they can not be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them." That is a vivid way of putting the ideal of marriage. That ideal illustrates, in so far as can be illustrated by an analogy from human experience, all the truths of God's love and grace in our lives. To say that we are married to Christ is to say that we are identified with Christ--that Christ is in us and we are in Christ--and that is the best way to say all those theological terms that preachers are so fond of. It is to say that we are saved, we are justified, we are sanctified. The marriage relationship is a way of describing how we become so united with Christ that we become a new person. We are no longer ourselves. We are new creatures in Christ.
The book of Revelation uses this same marriage terminology. It speaks of God's people being called to "the marriage supper of the lamb." ( RV19:7). RV21:2 reads, "I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." The new Jerusalem is the bride of Christ the people of God.
This marriage we have with Christ is obviously not a marriage of the body but of the soul. The savior is the bridegroom of the soul. The soul enters into a spiritual union with the bridegroom and receives an embrace of surpassing sweetness and serenity and power. In the Bible, there is a little known and little used book, "The Song of Solomon." The Song of Solomon looked at on one level is explicit and sensuous love poetry, but it is not about physical love. It is love poetry of the soul. The Song of Solomon is an allegory of the marriage of Christ to the soul of the believer. It is a description of the love of Christ for a soul and the love of a soul for Christ.
In the marriage ceremony, bride and groom promise to their sexual love exclusively to each other. Of course, they may love other people, but they will love only each other with the sexual love of husband and wife. This is the spiritual truth of our marriage to Christ. When we accept Christ as Rebekah accepted Isaac, we promise that Christ will be the only love of our soul. We will love him simply, devoutly, and entirely.
Paul Gerhardt said it well,
Jesus, thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
O knit my thankful heart to Thee,
And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, thine alone, I'd live,
Myself to thee entirely give.
("Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me," The Hymbook #404). Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 8/13/02