Genesis 22:20-24 “Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. Some time later Abraham was told, “Milcah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milcah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor. His concubine, whose name was Reumah, also had sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maacah.”
It is extraordinary that we know so much about one single family living 4000 years ago in Beersheba, a cluster of dusty houses and tents on the fringes of the desert between southern Israel and the country of Egypt. There were millions of other people living at that time and we know a few facts about a few of their kings, but concerning Abraham we know many of the events of his life and the lives of his family and servants in some detail. As Christians we explain our possession of that knowledge as due to what we call the providence of God, that he has preserved that information for all of mankind, and so for all of us. God is no mere spectator of the universe he has made, but is everywhere present and active, the all-sustaining ground, and all-governing power of all that is. Our Creator is a speaking God and he has made himself known to Abraham and his descendants. He determines which of his words and actions will be kept for the profit of the whole world. We in the 21st century learn from his dealings with Abraham because God is unchangeable, and how he dealt with Abraham (when he obeyed the Lord or chose to disobey him), and what he taught Abraham about himself is all very relevant to ourselves. We have to deal with the same God and the ways in which he dealt with Abraham will be the ways he deals with us. The warnings he gave to Abraham are our warnings too; the encouragements of his covenant promises are the foundation of our hope. So I believe that you will be a weaker person if you are unfamiliar with Abraham and his life. I am saying to you that it is the providence of God that has preserved the story of this man for our benefit, in fact “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Roms 15:4).
1. GOD IS A GOD OF PROVIDENCE.
I have used this term on a number of occasions and the providence of God is central for the passage before us now and for all that happens in these next chapters. In fact it is the ultimate explanation for you to be reading these words at this moment. Perhaps you stumbled across them on line, or someone gave you a print-out of them, but behind those actions is the good providence of God towards you. So what do I mean by God’s works of providence? The Westminster Shorter Catechism brilliantly and succinctly defines it thus: “God’s works of providence are, His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all His creatures, and all their actions.”
Let’s go to our text bearing in mind this reality of the dynamic involvement of God working in the world and in you at this moment, exposing you to these great truths – which God also worked in the life of Abraham and his family. Our text begins by telling us that, “Some time later . . .” (v.20) Abraham was told something. How much later? Well . . . some time . . . some considerable time I believe. If this happened just before Sarah died then that gives us a clue. We are told in the opening verse of chapter 23 that Sarah lived until she was 127 years of age. So if this occasion was just before that happened it meant that Abraham had left Ur of the Chaldees 62 years earlier. It meant that now Isaac was 37 years of
age. So, we learn that many years have flown by, as they do in all our lives, and the little boy Isaac had now left early manhood and yet was still unmarried. Those years in his life were like the silent years of Jesus growing up in Nazareth and we know nothing about Isaac’s life between being offered on the mountain altar until now – a huge period of 25 years.
So are you with me? In the providence of God nothing untoward had upset this family for decades. They had all grown older, and Sarah was now a frail old woman approaching her 127th birthday. Then one day a man came riding up to Abraham’s cluster of tents in Beersheba. He would have been welcomed in and given hospitalilty. He had crossed the Syrian desert from Ur, and only the brave did that. More . . . he had a message for Abraham about his brother Nahor and his wife Milcah. Had Abraham seen them at all during the last 62 years? Abraham had not returned to Ur of the Chaldees where he had waved them good-bye all those decades ago, and we’ve not been told that Nahor and Milcah ever made the journey to visit Abraham. What a trip that would have been; the site of Ur is near today’s Kuwait and the Syrian desert is hot, empty, and waterless. As the crow flies, Ur to Beersheba would be 900 miles, but on camels, to visit your brother, 1000 miles (in other words, Aberystywth to the Mediterranean), and none of it is road; so there’d been no personal contact between the brothers for over 60 years. Abraham is totally dependent on news of his kinfolk from travelers in caravans of camels who made that journey; maybe once every decade would there be a contact with someone who knew his family. So the arrival of this messenger was a wonderful divine providence. As much as the way Pharaoh’s daughter was guided by providence to the little ark with baby Moses inside it floating amidst the bulrushes, as much as providence directed the fall of the millstone that crushed Abimelech’s head, as much as providence planned the whole trajectory of the arrow that was shot at venture but which struck the king through one of the joints in his armour and killed him. All such events carry out God’s purposes in providence. In other words stuff doesn’t ‘just happen.’ Things don’t occur by luck or because God wasn’t looking
Thus this man homed in on Abraham’s home. He was welcomed and given hospitality. He washed and drank and ate and Abraham patiently waited. Then the man spoke, maybe beginning, “So Sarah has become a mother? Unbelievable news.” We know that he already knew of Isaac’s existence because when he talked of his brother’s family he said ‘also’ – he had also had children. So he told Abraham his news; “Your sister-in-law Milcah is also a mother having borne many sons for your brother Nahor. Now let me get their names right, the oldest is Uz, and the next is Buz, then there is Kemuel who has a son named Aram, and then there is Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel. Eight boys your brother has by Milcah. He’s also got a concubine named Reumah and she has borne him another four sons, and their names . . . let me see, are . . . Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maacah.” So Abraham, 137 years of age, received the information that he was the uncle of many nephews.
But then there was one more piece of news, and that launched rockets into Abraham’s stratosphere. A daughter was mentioned. The man added that Abraham’s youngest nephew Bethuel had a daughter named . . . Rebekah (v.23)! Abraham would have blinked; “So we are not a family exclusively of boys,” and he probably further thought then, and certainly later, “So I have a grand niece . . . and she is just the right age for Isaac to marry. Isaac has to marry because the line of the seed of the woman is so fine, it is like a spider’s thread. It comes down from Adam and Eve through me and on through Isaac, and he is 37 years of age and unmarried. I don’t want what happened to my son Ishmael to happen to him. He married . . . an Egyptian! That was his mother’s doing. She’s an Egyptian and bitter with me for my putting them out, but God said he would protect them and make Ishmael a powerful nation. I commit them to God every day even though he married one of those Egyptians who worship the sun god. I am so far away from him. God chose me so that I would direct my children and my household after me to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just (Gen. 1819). Anyway I don’t want Isaac to make a colossal mistake like that. There is nobody here in Beersheba suitable for him, but he is a happy godly boy. I often see him out in the fields in the cool of the evening praying and meditating (Gen. 24:63).” Those great thoughts were planted in Abraham’s mind through the arrival of this messenger. I believe he would have sent for his leading servant the next day and organised something then and there to make some contact with his brother and his nephew Bethuel to talk about Rebekah, but first things first. His wife Sarah was a dying woman and for the present it was Abraham’s providence just to pray and meditate about Isaac and Rebekah and what he should do, while giving all his time to care for Sarah in the last weeks of her life.
I am talking to you about the providence of God. God had made a promise to 75 year old Abraham and 65 year old Sarah that they would have a son and through him have innumerable descendants. God kept them waiting for 25 years before giving them Isaac and then ten or so years later he tested Abraham as to whom he feared and loved and obeyed more than any other, and Abraham passed that test with flying colours. Now a further 25 years have gone by and it is Isaac who has no children. Abraham has learned to wait on God patiently as God had often made him wait. How is this promise of children for Isaac going to be fulfilled? There is no hint that Abraham is at panic stations. He is not interfering; he did not bring a woman to Isaac when he was 17 or 27 or 37 years of age. Abraham would not snatch a woman and present her to God and tell him, “This is the one through whom the Seed will come who will bless all the nations of the earth. I’m an old match-maker and I’ve fixed it. So the line of the Seed is all right; nothing for you to worry about.” No! There was nothing at all like that. Abraham had his faith in the Lord. He believed that God was in control of this whole situation. He was regulating all their days and times and movements and had a perfect plan for Isaac and had appointed a good conclusion to this whole issue. Jehovah was there in Beersheba in, “his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all his creatures, and all their actions.” Let us break that down a little.
i] There is the providence of God in journeys made. This messenger had had a long dangerous trip. There were no maps and no roads; there were perils from robbers, from drought, from wells that had dried up, from sandstorms and from wild animals, and yet God brought him with his message to Abraham for
the sake of Isaac and the Seed. God had foreordained whatever he met on the journey. He governs every creature, man or beast, who could threaten this messenger. God was in control of this whole situation and he regulated every day and every movement, where the messenger would stay for the night, the food he would eat, the water he must drink, the people he would meet, the insects that would bite him, the very viruses that would trouble him. His breath was in God’s hands (Daniel 5:23). You remember what David says, that even those times when he had had to go through the valley of the shadow of death God had been with him. Death was not a no-go area for God. The king of Israel was not afraid of the king of terrors. God is the one who has the keys of death and the grave, and so David says that God’s rod and staff comforted him continually. In all his journeying there was the staff of God’s providence comforting him.
ii] There is the providence of God in the people that are met. We don’t know even the name of the messenger who brought this news to Abraham. We don’t know why he was travelling there and where he was going. All we know is the actual message he brought, that it was comprehensive, and accurate. He found Abraham and he told him all he needed to know, and that too was the effect of the providence of God. The book of Proverbs chapter 16 and the first verse; “The preparations of the heart in man and the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” You think of this man traveling so far with a message for Abraham, making sure he would forget nothing, preparing his heart to retain everything, and then when he met old Abraham with his tongue telling him everything that was in his heart about his brother. The preparation of the heart and the words on his tongue were from the Lord. That seems to me to be the way students are to be encouraged by the providence of God in their studies. They’re not to lie back and do nothing, chanting, “the providence of God . . . the providence of God. If I am to get a first I will get a first.” No. They prepare their hearts by working and memorizing, and then when term papers and exams come they express their answers and they know that that is from the Lord.
There was a teenage boy who was related to the apostle Paul. He was in fact Paul’s sister’s son, that is, Paul’s nephew. We don’t know his name, but we know that somehow he heard a group of Jews plotting together; they were planning to assassinate Paul (Acts 23:15&16). So immediately he went to his incarcerated Uncle Paul and told him what he had heard. We are told, “Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him” (Acts 23:17). God brought the boy into the life of the commander and he got cracking with military efficiency and soon he had whisked Paul away from the assassins under armed guard. The apostle’s life was spared and today we have the letters to the Romans and Ephesians and Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles, all, humanly speaking, because a teenage boy acted and told Paul and the commander exactly what he had heard and seen. There is the providence of God shown in the people he brings into our lives.
An Ethiopian official, a real high-flier in Queen Candace’s government, was traveling home from Jerusalem. This anonymous man was reading on his journey back to Africa, but he couldn’t understand what he was studying. It was the Scriptures that had providentially been put in his hand, but it was a mysterious book to him. Maybe you once picked up the Bible and as you read it you couldn’t get much from it, but now in the providence of God you are here and I am explaining the Word of God to you. So it was by the same providence-working God a Christian named Philip was sent to catch up with the Ethiopian. He walked alongside him as he sat in his chariot and he heard him reading aloud. Philip asked him if he could understand the Bible, and when the man told him he couldn’t then Philip explained the Scriptures to him and the man became a believer and was baptized. I am saying that God’s providence has brought you to gain from me an understanding of the Bible.
iii] There is the providence of God in his gift of children. “Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord and the fruit of the womb is his reward.” You remember Hannah longing for children, mocked by her husband’s other wife who was having children constantly while Hannah had had none at all. She went to the temple to pray and she said to God that if he would give a child to her that she would give the child back to God to serve him and be his all the days of his life. God finally gave Hannah her heart’s desire in little Samuel and soon she was giving the boy back to the Lord to serve him. Now we are thankful for all the help that medical science can give those who find it hard to conceive children – just as long as God’s wise laws are observed, but ultimately it is the Lord who knits all unborn babies together in their mothers’ wombs. He gives us our first breath.
In this passage before us we are told of two brothers; one had twelve sons by his wife and also by his concubine while the other had had two boys. We have no grounds to believe that Nahor, Abraham’s brother, feared and loved Jehovah, and yet God gave him all those boys, but to the man who was so close to God that the Lord called himself the ‘God of Abraham’ God gave just two boys. In other words, it is no mark that a man’s life is very pleasing to God that he gives him many children, while another life is displeasing to God and he has few or none. We see the very reverse of that in our scripture. All we can do is to trust in the providence of God, and all we can say is, “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.”
iv] There is the providence of God in his gift of a life partner. There was a descendant of Abraham called Naomi who, at a time of famine in the Promised Land, emigrated to Moab and there her two sons married Moabite girls, and there her husband and both her sons died. One of her daughters-in-law returned in Israel with her and the first morning Ruth got up she went out to glean barley with the other poor folks in the vast communal field. But the God of providence was guiding her every step of the way. There was one section of the field which she chose to wander into so artlessly in order to glean the barley in its corners, barley that had been left by the reapers. The field happened to be owned by a man named Boaz, a relative of her mother-in-law. Through that providence Ruth met him, and he fell in love with her and they married and their great grandchild was David the king. He was in the line of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Through them all the Lord Jesus came, born with the blood of this noble Moabite woman running in his veins. God planned every uncertain step on that first day in Judah as she set out waving good-bye to her mother-in-law Naomi finally arriving at the field of the one she little suspected she was going to marry. God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
So it was also here; Abraham had kept the marriage of Isaac at the back of his mind for years. Where would he find a wife for his beautiful son? Then one day quite unexpectedly this man came from Ur with news of his brother and his brother’s children and grandchildren. It was all so fascinating after years of silence, but when the man mentioned the daughter Rebekah that God had given to his youngest nephew, Bethuel, then Abraham pricked up his ears and listened intently. Those who believe in the God of providence will have providences to believe in. Abraham is thinking and praying about this matter. Was the news of Rebekah the reason that this man had come into his life that day? The last thing that Abraham was expecting that day was to hear the name of a girl his son might marry. He hadn’t dreamed that this concern, deep in his heart, would be raised and a possible answer suggested. So it is with all of us; every couple here will tell a different story of how they met one another. They were pleased and a little surprised to find a person showing interest in them out of the blue. But behind all the coincidences and invitations and mix-ups and misunderstandings every Christian will acknowledge God to be at work in his providence bringing them together.
2. THERE ARE THOSE WHO OBJECT TO GOD’S COMPREHENSIVE PROVIDENCE.
i] There are those who say, “Yes, God is the sovereign God of providence but surely he can’t be in control of every single detail that happens.” These people want to believe in a God who controls the world simply in the most general of ways. For example, they agree that God might decide that Isaac and Rebekah will get married, but they think he doesn’t plan the details of how this will be worked out. We are the ones who have to do this, they imagine. Yes, God sees to the over-all picture and in the way he wants it to be, but God doesn’t determine the trivial things. Now that is in fact the old pagan view of their gods. Cicero was a Roman orator and philosopher who died forty years or so before our Lord was born. He introduced to the citizens of Rome the teaching of the Greek philosophers. He said this; “Great things the gods care for; small things they neglect.”
But a moment’s reflection will show you that the doctrine of the limited providence or the limited sovereignty of God would be an end to the whole doctrine of God’s almighty power. If his eye is not on sparrows then how can we be sure that his eye on an entire galaxy? If there is a rogue molecule in the cosmos over which the Lord is not in control can he be Lord of all?
There is a well known proverb that goes like this; “For the loss of a war the nation was defeated. For the loss of a general the battle was lost. For the loss of a horse the general was detained. For the loss of a horseshoe the horse was unavailable. For the loss of a nail the horse could not be shod.” In other words, the country was overthrown because of so trivial an absence as a single nail. You see what that hyperbole is teaching, that big things really depend on little things. If the little things are not under God’s control then neither can the big things be under his control because big things are simply a mass of small things. It wasn’t that God told this messenger to make his own way for a thousand miles and he had to run and hide and hunt without the help of God for weeks and months, No. God was with him each step of the way in all those thousands of little choices, little decisions, little needs and little timings of events. In them all the God of providence was at work. Jesus says, “But the hairs of your head are all numbered.” He decrees the life of the sparrow, what branch it will perch on, what grain it will peck up, where it will build its nest, how it shall eat and drink, and when it shall fall. Its price is a few pence; it hops and flies suddenly from one place to another. Its flight seems giddy and at random but nothing happens in the life of that sparrow apart from God. Our God is the God of trifling things as well as the rolling spheres of heaven. As Loraine Boettner once said, “Every raindrop and every snowflake which falls from the cloud, every insect which moves, every plant which grows, every grain of dust which floats in the air has had certain definite causes and will have certain definite effects. Each is a link in the chain of events and many of the great events of history have turned on these apparently insignificant things.”
When you consider the God who dealt with Abraham you discover a blessed God, sovereign in power and influence in every way, a mighty Lord over all things, the destroyer of Sodom and begetter of Isaac within a 90 year-old woman. Do you know the size of one sperm and one ovum which unite at the beginning of every unborn child? You cannot see it with the naked eye, and God is the Lord of tiny providences like that, and that is the way all of us began. Is anything too hard for this God? As Paul tells the Ephesian Christians, “He works all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephs. 1:11). He is a God so above all things that we are told: “Of him, and through him, and to him are all things” (Roms. 11:36). So he is in control of every detail that happens.
ii] There are those who say that believing in a God of providence reduces men to little more than “pawns on a chessboard.” It seems to make helpless robots out of men. It takes away the need for sacrifice, prayer, planning and forethought. It makes people fatalists. “What you are saying,” they say, “suggests that God picked up this man in Ur of the Chaldees and put him down in Beersheba just like a chess player moves a bishop across the board. If God is in control of everything then I just wait for certain doors to open and for people to be brought into my life or into my congregation.”
But that was not Abraham’s response to the news of Rebekah. He didn’t sit back in the shade of the tamarisk tree and say, “Well, God brought this messenger into my life without my sending for him or doing anything at all. Now if Rebekah is to come here and marry Isaac then I must wait for her to turn up one day under this tree.” No. There was nothing like that, in fact there was the very reverse. One day Abraham sent for “the chief servant of his household, the one in charge of all that he had” (Gen 24:2). Abraham chose the wisest, shrewdest man working for him. He didn’t think anybody would do for this job. Then he made the servant take an oath. Then he said to him, “Go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen 24:4). Then the servant himself was not nonchalant. He took ten camels and “all kinds of good things from his master” (Gen. 24:10). These included “gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing . . . and costly gifts” (Gen 24:53). Abraham didn’t think, “If she’s going to come she’s going to come.” To marry Isaac and live in Beersheba would be an enormous sacrifice for her and her family, and so Abraham was extremely generous in his gifts. This is not the attitude of a fatalist or a puppet. Abraham believed in the providence of God, but God had made him a sensitive man because our God pities his children. So Abraham took very seriously his responsibility in seeking to remove Rebekah from her family a thousand miles, maybe never to see them again. Believing in the providence of God does not diminish our respect for others, or our awareness of their liberty.
3. WE MAY NOT PRESUME UPON THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD.
Notice in our text that there is a very sad word that occurs for the first time in the Bible. It is the word ‘concubine’ (v.24), and you are going to meet it on almost forty more occasions in Scripture. Abraham’s brother was married to Milcah and they had together eight boys. They would seem a very fulfilled family, and yet Nahor, his brother took another woman into his family and she became his concubine and they had four more sons. Yes it was a common practice in the world at that time that men took concubines, a second-class wife with fewer rights than an ordinary wife. There was no bride-money involved; she was cheaper to acquire – a cut-price, second-class wife and everybody was doing it, so why not? Because from the beginning it was not so. God made one women, Eve, for Adam, and the two became one flesh, and a man was to leave his father and his mother in order to cleave to his wife – singular not plural – not ‘wives.’ But what if you really fancied a woman, and she was all alone, and it was hard for her to get by, and she fancied you too? And what if it were perfectly acceptable, especially if you had loadsadosh, to support another wife and her children, and all your tribe was doing it, and your father had done it and his father before him? Wasn’t the providence of God directing you to take a second-class cut-price wife too? Nahor thought he could, but remember, he didn’t know the Lord.
The great danger with the doctrine of the providence of God is that people think they can learn their duties of how they’re to behave from divine providences rather than from the clear directives of Scripture. The providence of God shows a man the path of God for his life, for example, from Ur to Beersheba across the desert, or the path that you might be on right now in your intention of marrying someone, or of completing three years’ study at university. However, the providence of God doesn’t show you how you’re to behave while you are on that path that God has set out for you. You learn that from the Ten Commandments, and from the Sermon on the Mount and from Romans chapter twelve and from Ephesians five and six. Your rule of faith and practice is the Bible not providences.
Consider the providence of God in the life of Joseph. Of all the people that might have bought him as a slave in Egypt it was Potiphar who bought him, and Potiphar’s wife really fancied him and Potiphar himself was far away fighting battles for Pharaoh many months each year and Potiphar’s wife was lonely. So, wasn’t this providence encouraging Joseph to give in to her seductions, that he would be actually helping a lonely woman? No. You learn to behave from God’s commandments not from God’s providence. Again, consider Jonah defying God, turning away from going to Nineveh and fleeing instead west to the seashore. When he gets to a harbour he finds a boat continuing to go in that opposite direction from Nineveh, and there is a berth for a passenger available, and he has enough money to pay for it, and the wind is blowing in the right direction. Within an hour he is sailing further and further from Nineveh. Hasn’t providence confirmed the wisdom of his decision to defy the command of God in order to go the opposite way? No. Jonah must live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God not from providences.
I am saying that we must never use easy enjoyable providences to go against the clear commands of God in Scripture. You must never be ruled by providences even if yours don’t seem to be like other men’s sins, especially when they seem beautiful to you. They do not dictate to you how you should live, but the will of God in the Bible does. It seems quite significant to me that Adolph Hitler mouthed the word ‘providence’ many times and used the phrase to justify some of his most despicable actions. I am saying that no one can believe in the providence of God without first knowing the way to God through Jesus Christ. A stranger to evangelical repentance and saving trust is a stranger to understanding the workings of divine providence. The ways in which we walk will always be ways which are consistent with the ethical teaching of the New Testament. But what comfort will be ours to know that our Saviour is the Lord of our daily providences.
8th November 2009 GEOFF THOMAS