“Isaac took Rebekah, and she became his wife and he loved her.” Genesis 24: 67
It is the wedding season. A time of planning, excitement, anxiety, anticipation, joy…of gathering together family and friends. Weddings are one of the most enjoyable parts of being a minister. Standing before a couple we get to see the sea of happy faces of the congregation and the reflection of love in their parents’ eyes. We also get to experience surprises. Despite the best efforts of our Wedding Guild ladies, or one of those over organized wedding planners, some things still do not always go according to plan. Ask almost any minister about unusual happenings at a wedding, and they invariably will have a tale or two to tell, some funny, some poignant. A colleague of mine told of a wedding in which this four year-old boy, neatly attired with tux and pillow, growled all the way down the center aisle because someone told him he was the “ring bear.”
Weddings are also a time for honoring memory and tradition. Last Saturday there was a wedding here in our sanctuary. The mother of the bride asked her daughter to include The Wedding Song in the service because it had been sung at her wedding. The Wedding Song, written by Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, opens with a verse that speaks eloquently of the spiritual nature that is present at the union between two people in love…
He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts. Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part. The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain. For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name there is love. There is love.
Couples choose the scripture readings for their wedding service. And while there are some moving passages on love in the Bible, no part of scripture was ever written with a wedding in mind. As a matter of fact, one of the great ironies is that I Corinthians 13 is the most often chosen scripture passage for weddings. This lovely, poetic piece of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth was written not as a meditation on love, but as advice to the people of the church in Corinth who were quarreling with one another. Paul writes to that family of faith: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not record wrongs, but rejoices in the truth.” Then, “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Like most of scripture these words have to do with community, not individuals. But even though few who hear this reading at a wedding service realize its context, it appropriately describes the kind of love needed to hold a marriage as well as a community together.
When I meet with a couple prior to their wedding, I begin by asking one of them to tell me how they met and the other how they became engaged. The diversity of responses I have heard over time demonstrate just how unpredictable, and predictable, a relationship comes together and evolves…from the couple who met as their mothers walked them to the first day of kindergarten, to a couple who once dated briefly in high school, went their separate ways, and after one became divorced and the other widowed, met again at their 25th high school reunion and love sparked between them…from one couple who very early on in dating looked at engagement rings at a jewelry store for fun, to another couple in which the woman was pleasantly taken aback when her long-time “significant other” publicly proposed to her on the eighteenth hole in front of a group of their friends.
A new wrinkle has developed recently in the dating and courtship scene. You’ve no doubt seen it advertised on TV or maybe know a couple who met their soul mate through an internet dating service like eHarmony or Match.com. I’ve married three couples who have met this way. Out of curiosity, the first time I encountered it I asked about their experience. What they described was a variation on the decades-old computer matching program. You answer a bevy of questions. You list your likes and dislikes followed by your desires and needs. You name the top five things you like in a person you date. Then you name the top five things you don’t like. A profile is created, and then made part of a network with other profiles. Truth be told, I was quite impressed with the sophistication of the process. As much because the couple who described their experience seemed so right for each other and had this habit of finishing each other sentences as they talked.
Now, contrast that technology and psychology of this twenty first century mating practice with the 3,000 year-old story about the matchmaking of Rebekah to Isaac that we just heard read.
Abraham’s son, Isaac, has reached the age of forty and is still unmarried. Back when Abraham wore a younger man’s clothes, God had taken him outside of the tent one night and promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed…Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able. So shall your descendents be.” Abraham believed in the promise, but now he is aware his time on earth is running out. Something has to be done to get Isaac a wife.
“Now Abraham was old,” the narrator tells us, “and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.” Abraham knows God’s blessings and knows why he has become rich and powerful. Unlike us, he doesn’t think everything he has is the result of his own talent and wisdom and hard work. He gives God thanks for his blessings while at the same time not expecting God to make things happen. Abraham decides he must do his part to ensure the promise. And like most of us, most of the time, the old man functions without divine directive. He just does what he thinks is necessary and right.
Abraham calls his servant, the one who has been with him the longest, the one he trusts deeply, and makes a pact with him. He tells the servant to go back to his homeland to find a proper wife for Isaac. The servant keeps asking, “What will happen if the woman refuses?” What will happen if I can’t find a wife for Isaac in Haran?” These questions hang in the air as he swears an oath to Abraham to do what he has been asked.
The servant departs with an entourage of other servants and camels and quite a few costly gifts as well. Once they arrive in the old country, the servant prays that God will provide a sign. When he arrives at the well, he sees Rebekah coming toward him and prays (more or less offering a deal to God like we do sometimes). He asks God, “Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.”
As far as the servant is concerned, the future is in God’s hands. We know before he does that she will be Isaac’s wife, but he’s living in the moment and does not yet know the outcome.
Rebekah extends hospitality to this total stranger and offers him a drink of water from her jar. She has no idea that when she tells him next, “I will also draw water for your camels,” it would change her life forever. Before she knows what has hit her, the servant decks her out in heavy gold rings and bracelets. Then he asks Rebekah about her family on the pretense he needs a place for himself and camels to stay for the night. After she invites him to stay at her family’s home, the servant launches into a full-throated doxology in praise of God, anticipating successfully fulfilling his mission. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”
Rachel gets home and quickly tells her family what happened at the well. Her brother Laban takes one look at the small fortune in gold that she is wearing and is suddenly very receptive to this stranger. He rushes out of the house to greet the stranger and says, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord.” In short order, arrangements are made, gifts provided to Rebekah’s family, and she agrees to return with the servant to marry a man she has never seen.
This story of Isaac and Rebekah is the single longest chapter in the whole of the Bible. It cannot be counted as one of the more important stories in the book, so what do you suppose explains the large amount of space devoted to it? The narrator could easily have edited this story down considerably touching on just the salient points as I tried to do in selecting certain verses in the reading. Why so much detail? Perhaps it is because God is in the details. Unlike other narratives earlier in Genesis, God does not speak in Genesis 24. The servant does not receive a heavenly vision either. God does not tip off Rebekah or her family. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, with the exception of the servant’s brief prayers, this story is a report of some very ordinary events. God is not reported as saying anything to move the action along — and yet, when you read it you can’t help but feel that God is directing everything. Maybe the author of Genesis is making a vital point: even ordinary events in life can be (and often are) full of God.
The story of Rebekah and Isaac is about God’s providence. It is a story of how God works out divine promises through the interrelationship of people being themselves and doing not so exceptional things. The story ends, “Rebekah looked up and 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.”
It is noteworthy that the narrator tells us, “He took Rebekah and she became his wife; and he loved her.” There is little in the Bible about the love of two people on a personal level – with the exception of the Song of Songs that Jane read from earlier. Song of Songs celebrates love. It is evocative poetry, even racy. At the time of its writing it was quite erotic. Not surprisingly since, especially because the church was and is so uncomfortable with sex, it has been controversial. Some have tried to take the edge off by saying The Song of Songs is really about the relationship between Israel and God. But it doesn’t read that innocently. It reads as a song of blessing that celebrates the kind love that moves the emotions and the heart. A blessing from God.
Well then what’s to be the
reason for becoming man and
Is it love that brings you here or
Love that brings you life?
Or if loving is the answer, then
who’s the giving for?
Do you believe in something that
you’ve never seen before?
Oh there’s Love, there is Love.
A few years ago in a modest banquet hall, I watched a couple join their hands on one knife to cut into a beautifully decorated cake that had figurines of a bride and groom standing atop the cake with a big number “50” in red icing. Children were there. Grandchildren were there. Old and dear friends were there. Candles glowed on the tables.
Carnations in vases. A gift table. There was lots of laughter and a few stories. The groom of fifty years who got up to make a toast was a private man who was uncomfortable speaking in public. He tapped his water glass to quiet the conversations and thanked everyone for being there. Then he said, “This is the best day of my life. I am so grateful that Ginny and I got married when we both hardly knew what we were doing or how our life would turn out. There’s no place I’d rather be this afternoon than right here beside this woman. I have loved her and she has loved me all these years. I thank God for bringing us together and helping us to stay together. And I thank our girls and all of you for helping to make this such a special day for us.”
Wendell Berry writes, “The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown. We can join ourselves to one another only by joining the unknown…no one party…can be solely in charge. What you alone think [marriage] ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you – and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.” (Poetry and Marriage essay)
Well a man shall leave his mother
and a woman leave her home
And they shall travel on to where
the two shall be as one.
And as it was in the beginning
is now and until the end…
And there is love. There is love.
Rebekah bore two sons by Isaac, twins actually, Esau and Jacob. After a fateful encounter with God, Jacob comes to be known as Israel and from there God’s promise to Abraham starts to be fulfilled. All these millennia later, we are part of that promise.
Blest be the tie that binds. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.