Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Searching and Finding
Last time we learned about the testing of Abraham. God commanded Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loved, to Mount Moriah and to sacrifice him there as a burnt offering. Today we hear about Isaac’s marriage. These two stories stand in juxtaposition to each other, treating us to a play of opposites. Last time Isaac was at the brink of death, snatched from its jaws only at the last instant, when the angel of the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand. Today he is entering into marriage, which represents new life and the promise of new life.
Let us pause for a moment to reflect on how this statement applies especially to Isaac. Following the traumatic event at Mount Moriah, Isaac loses his mother Sarah. He is now deprived of a woman’s presence in his life. But when Rebekah enters into his life, he is comforted. Rebekah gives Isaac a new lease on life after the loss of his mother. He can launch out on a new life together with his wife Rebekah.
But marriage is also the promise of new life in the form of children the couple expects to have. And if Isaac and Rebekah don’t have children, then Abraham’s line ceases, and the promise God made to Abraham about offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky becomes null and void.
The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day affords us the occasion to see the story of this marriage through the eyes of Abraham’s servant. The passage doesn’t tell us his name, but a very old Jewish tradition identifies him as Eliezer, Abraham’s senior steward. Abraham deputized Eliezer to go to the land of Abraham’s own people and search for a wife for his son Isaac there. He made him a swear an oath. Eliezer did so and set out.
Our lesson begins in the middle of the action. Eliezer has already found the woman that he believes is the right one for Isaac. But he has to meet her brother, whose name is Laban. Parenthetically, that remains so today, doesn’t it? It’s a typical scenario that we all recognize, if we haven’t experienced it directly. The family members have to approve of the one who has won the heart of their daughter or their sister or their close relative. Indeed, most of the verses in this lesson consist of the report that Eliezer gives to Laban about his search. So let us the consider the content of this report more closely. What does it tell us about Eliezer’s experience? How does he conceive of the quest on which his master Abraham sent him? What can it teach us about how God works in the lives of his people? Or, to be more precise, what can it teach us about how to understand our own searching in life?
Note in the first place that when Laban confronts him, Eliezer states his name and declares his purpose. “I am Abraham’s servant. Abraham bound me by an oath to go to his own people and get a wife for his son.” In other words, he knows who he is, and where he’s going. This is worth noting. There’s a passage in the children’s book Alice in Wonderland, which contains an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where–” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “–so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Until we can answer the question: “where are you going?” we can’t say that one road is preferable to the others. Any road will lead us to where we are going, because we are going nowhere in particular. We have no destination.
How many people do we know in our own family and social circles to whom this applies? They are anxious and restless, endlessly searching for direction. But because they don’t have a goal or destination, or at because they don’t have a main one, to which they can subordinate all the rest of their decisions, both big and small, they continue to drift, to wander aimlessly through life.
Has anyone ever asked you: “If you could have your ideal job, what it would be?” or “What do you really want out of life?” If they have, what they really want to find out is who you are. Where we are going and who we are—these two questions are inseparably bound up together. If we can answer one, then we can answer the other. This is important for us to bear in mind as launch out in our search. We need to be clear about what we want, and that clarity does not usually come until we know who we are.
Eliezer for his part knows who he is and what he wants. He wants to find a wife…for Isaac. This brings us to the next point we want to make about Eliezer’s search. That is, that he prays to God to guide him in his search. “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if you will only make successful the way I am going!” What is Eliezer doing here? He is presenting before God the object of his search, and then asking God to grant him success in his pursuit.
I am no longer young myself, but I have known many young people. Of these I have known some who have been entangled in relationships that were wrong for them. Most of these came from good homes. Grandma told them to “wait for God’s best.” They could never confess this to Grandma, but that came to mean less and less to them as they entered into adulthood, until it became an empty platitude altogether. Eventually, impatience yielded to desperation, and desperation, combined with desire, turned into a very potent force, which carried them along and plunged them into a relationship that was wrong for them.
When we are in search of someone, say, a spouse, or something, say, an opportunity, or anything that our heart desires, do we bring the object of our search before God? Do we ask God for wisdom? Do we listen for God’s counsel? Do we wait for God’s guidance on whether or how to move forward?
If we are honest, we may answer: “not always” or “seldom” or even “not at all.” But those who refuse to bring their search before God in prayer live in worry and fear, and even anger and frustration. That includes us too, insofar as none of us perfectly trusts God to provide for all our needs, to point us in the right direction in our search.
But we should not let our imperfect trust, even if it borders on distrust, keep us from God. We should not let a history of “doing it on our own” make us feel it’s too late for us. As long as we have this present moment, it’s never too late. We can be honest before God. God won’t condemn us for our distrust. On the contrary, God will show us more and more of his goodness and power, so that we may know that he is both willing and able to reveal and make available to us the object of our search.
God answers Eliezer’s prayer. Note how specific it is. “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 you have appointed for my master’s son.” In answer to his prayer, God leads Eliezer in his search to Rebekah. In an obvious sense, as she runs back and forth at the well, eagerly providing for the needs of the servant and the camels, she resembles Abraham, when he welcomed the three strangers, about which we read two weeks ago. She is “impatient, energetic, overflowing with lovingkindness,” in the words of author Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Just as Abraham was distinguished for his kindness, so also is Rebekah.
Note that prayer for Eliezer is not only petition. That is to say, it isn’t only asking God. It’s also thanking God. When God answered Eliezer’s prayer, Eliezer responded by bowing his head in worship and saying: “Bless the Lord, the God of Abraham, who led me by the right way to obtain Rebekah.” The apostle Paul instructs us to be anxious for nothing, but by prayer and petition, make our requests known to God, with thanksgiving.
There is one last observation to make. Note that after Eliezer prays, he lets go. That is, he leaves the matter entirely in the hands of God. He has prayed, he has presented his case to Laban—in short, he’s done everything he can on his end. He’s even prepares himself to go home without Rebekah, if Laban refuses to let her go. At the conclusion of his report, Eliezer says to Laban: “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.” The tension in his language can almost be felt. The “if” or “if not” impresses on us the real anguish of the doubt and hope Eliezer experiences. There is a moment of suspense, for so much hangs on the outcome.
But when we trust in God’s providence, as did Eliezer, we can rest. When we don’t, we tend to manipulate people and circumstances, in the attempt to ensure the most favorable outcome for ourselves. But this attempt to control circumstances will lead to worry, fear, and even anger and frustration. Life then becomes a burden. Jesus knows that we are prone to live this way. That is why in our gospel lesson he invites all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to him and find rest for our souls.
The tension in the drama is resolved when Rebekah consents to go with Eliezer. The first meeting of bride and bridegroom is memorably described. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field. The original language, which is not properly translated in the version we read, tells us that he went out to meditate. His meditation is traditionally understood to be the evening prayer. Is he praying for Eliezer’s success? Is he praying that he will find Rebekah attractive? That she will be the right one for him?
Raising her eyes, Rebekah sees Isaac. She got off the camel and said to Eliezer: who is that man walking in the field towards us? And the servant said: “That’s my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself.
Rebekah veils herself, thereby obscuring the light of her face, illuminated as it is by the sunlit world of lovingkindness that she inhabits. Isaac brings her into his mother Sarah’s tent” (24:67). The Hebrew word translated here as “tent” sounds like the word for “light.” “He takes her and she irradiates the darkness of his mother’s tent” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg). She is, and is not, like his mother. But through her his sense of his mother’s loss is healed.
There is hope, there is new life and promise of new life. The saga may continue. It appears that God has been faithful to his promise to Abraham. We can now wait to see what issues from this union. Amen.