Genesis 24:28-33 “The girl ran and told her mother's household about these things. Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister's arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. ‘Come, you who are blessed by the LORD,’ he said. ‘Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.’ So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded. Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him and his men to wash their feet. Then food was set before him, but he said, ‘I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.’ ‘Then tell us,’ Laban said.”
The patriarch Abraham wanted to provide a bride for Isaac who was in his mid-thirties, and so he sent his chief servant to find the right woman. He didn’t want Isaac to get a woman for himself amongst the daughters of the Canaanites but to marry one of Abraham’s own kinfolk. So with certain natural misgivings off goes the anonymous servant, and through a remarkable series of providences he meets with Rebekah. It is a beautiful story, in fact a Free Church of Scotland minister wrote a little book on this chapter many years ago and he entitled it The Loveliest Story Ever Told. However, it is not in the Bible as a lovely story or even to give us moral exhortations such as teaching Christians to marry Christians. That may be true, but it is not the significant truth of this particular chapter. Why should this story of getting a wife for Isaac be given so much space in Genesis when proportionately the story of Isaac himself is relatively brief? I mean that of the patriarchs there is much attention given to Abraham, and Moses also takes a lot of interest in the life of Jacob, but comparatively little information is given to us about the life of Isaac. He is a minor patriarch.
Yet in this chapter we are given many details of how he came to marry Rebekah. It is a rambling love story, and its facts are engrained in the reader by their repetition. There is the straightforward narrative, and then the servant goes over the story once and again. We’re not allowed to forget it. There’s something deep going on here. In fact we are being brought into the very heart of the gospel because this is no ordinary love story. This is the marriage of Isaac, that long awaited son of our father Abraham. Late in time behold he came, offspring of a 90 year-old mother and a hundred year old father. This chapter is relating to us how the promised son of the covenant got married, and running right through the Bible is this great covenant story, this covenant line, the living God having determined from the very beginning that he would have a people. He would fill heaven with vast numbers of them. He would join himself to a people in a covenant, and of course what is marriage if it’s not a covenant? So God intends to say to those far away from Canaan, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’ God is entering into covenant with sinners, and they are sinners because they broke covenant in the first place, breaking away from God. Now Gentile strangers, that is, strange far-off people from the nations of the world who speak different languages, God is determined to bless them by bringing them into his covenant, and he does so in order to add to the luster of his Son when Christ will one day present his church before the presence of God’s glory. So the bigger story is how God in providence, at a time when there so few non-pagans in all the world, continued and extended the line of promise. That is seen in this chapter in the details of the servant persuading Rebekah and her family that she must return with him to Abraham to marry his son Isaac.
- THE SERVANT EXPLAINS HIS MISSION TO REBEKAH’S FAMILY.
Once again we see fleet-footed Rebekah running (v.28) to her mother’s household and telling them about meeting the servant of Abraham and all that she has learned from his words and hearing him pray. Laban her brother is like her in that he hurries too, but what catches his eye is the new nose ring his beautiful young sister is wearing. “What is that? That’s no cheap piece of jewelry picked up in the Shekel Shop. That is real hall-marked silver, man, and look at those bracelets on her arms. Quality stuff!” He listens to the story of how she’s received these treasures with growing excitement, and he goes out and greets and warmly welcomes the benefactor. So, the first thing that Moses tells us about Laban is that he was fascinated with the jewelry. His eyes were set upon it all, and this is quite a significant observation as it captures an important aspect of the character of Laban which will come to fore in the life of Jacob. Laban likes nice things; he appreciates wealthy people, and that’s the spur to the superb hospitality he now presses upon Abraham’s servant, “Come . . why are you standing out there? I have prepared the house, and a place for the camels” (v.31), and so everything for the servant’s pleasure and for his men (who are mentioned here for the first time), and for the camels is richly provided.
However, Abraham’s servant was a patient man who knew his priorities. He had waited at the well for the women to come out before watering his camels and again he waited before they began their meal: “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say” (v.33). So from verse 33 all the way through to verse 49 he recounts the story of his pilgrimage. The Holy Spirit could have made the story more abbreviated here, couldn&rsq
uo;t he? Moses could have written, “And the servant told them all that God had done,” but this story is so very important that by repetition it is cut into our minds. A survey of these incidents displays to us again the providence and faithfulness of Jehovah, and I can test us; hasn’t God shown his faithfulness to us in Christ and displayed his providential care over us? So let us not grow weary of repeating to one another the wonderful works of the Lord. What power is in the servant’s words! What utter honesty! He omits nothing and he communicates his conviction that God’s hand has been on him in this journey from the beginning.
He begins, “I am Abraham’s servant” (v.34). The important connection with this family gathered around the meal table is immediately established. He is talking of their uncle. He goes on to speak of Abraham’s riches, and that would mean a great deal to them, but he stresses that it is the Lord who gave Abraham his wealth. Then he adds that his master has just one son, and that says that all of Abraham’s wealth is going to be inherited by Isaac. There were not a dozen sons waiting hungrily for his wealth to be spread out among them. One son will inherit all the herds and flocks and servants. So his master, who is now advancing in years, is very anxious to find a wife for him, and she is not to be taken from among the Canaanites but from among his own people. Now the penny has dropped and the tension in the air is palpable.
However, the servant is very upfront with them. “Let me tell you this from the start,” he says. “Even if I return from here with no wife then Abraham has made it plain that if she refuses to accompany me then he will release me from the oath that he made me swear – if I should return without the right woman.” Maybe you or I would have been tempted to leave out that detail if we’d been talking to the family. We might have used our responsibility to return with a woman as another argument why they should encourage Rebekah to go – “I’ll be in big trouble if I go back without her.” No. There is nothing of that. This servant knew that God was in control and he was losing nothing by being completely open with them.
So he tells them the whole story to show them the hand of God in this impossible mission. He tells them of how he came to the well and he prayed. “This is what I prayed . . .” he says and tells them his prayer, word for word (vv.42-44). “Before I finished praying along came Rebekah and she did exactly what he had asked God that a woman might do. When she had finished and he asked who she was he discovered that she came from Abraham’s family, and that overwhelmed him. He gave her the silver jewelry that Abraham had given to him and he bowed and worshipped the Lord, praising him for leading him “on the right road to get the grand-daughter of my master’s brother for his son” (v.48). He could not be more above board. He has been utterly honest with them and so he feels he can ask them for Rebekah to marry Isaac; “If you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn” (v.49).
You see that immediately he asked for Rebekah. He had seen his master asking for a burial place for his wife Sarah and when some high price had been tossed out immediately Abraham had beckoned, I presume, to him because he was “the chief servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had” (v.2). He was responsible for the finances, and so he brought to Abraham their bag of money who had paid Ephron two minutes after he’d demanded four hundred shekels of silver for the cave of Machpelah. No quibbles. Abraham had learned how to deal with businessmen and heads of families in matters like this. Let your yea be yea, and let your nay be nay. So the servant was like his master, up front and honest. Now he asked for an immediate answer to his request for Rebekah to be the bride of Isaac.
The whole situation is so obviously supernatural and so amazing that Rebekah’s family accedes to his request at once. “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master's son, as the Lord has directed” (vv. 50&51). “This is from the Lord.” So what could they say? How in the world could they possibly refuse something in which God’s hand was so apparent. God’s hand was over all this, directing and timing the whole event. There is no way that this could have come about if God had not brought it about. “Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed” (v.51). They were not responding to him but to the Lord. He was merely God’s messenger. Yes, Abraham was rich, and yes, Abraham was a relative. But the emphasis of this story is found in four factors: the oath, the promise, the prayer and the providence of God. Abraham extracted this oath from his servant; Abraham gave him the promise of the angel of the Lord going before him, and this man proceeded all the journey conscious of this, in a spirit of prayerfulness, God’s providence leading him every step of the way. This was from the Lord. That is the message of this passage; that the Lord had done this and it was marvelous in their eyes
What is the servant’s response? He worships God again (v. 52) It is moving to see this servant at prayer. If you look back in the chapter, back to verses 12, 13 and 14 you will see the first prayer of the servant of Abraham. That prayer he prayed standing. It was his prayer that God would prosper his mission, and he stood as he praised God because he was standing like a watchman on the alert, waiting for the Lord’s answer. Then notice what he does in the next two prayers. Having prayed that first prayer standing and watching for the Lord’s response when the first answer came in verses 26 and 27, the servant bowed to the ground in prostration before the Lord, in awesome wonder at God’s answer. His heart was overflowing with thanksgiving, and he bowed to the ground. Now again here in verse 52, we are told explicitly that “he bowed down to the ground before the Lord” in astonishment at God’s goodness. Do we appreciate the place of our praying in the plan of God for our lives and the life of this congregation? If the man had refused to go on this journey then what would have happened? Rebekah would not have been found. If this servant had gone out casually and prayerlessly as if this were all a little adventure with the lads then what would have happened? Rebekah would not have been found. The praying, as much as the journey and the servant’s practical sagacity, was the means God purposed to find a bride for Isaac. The Holy Spirit is drawing our attention to the central place prayer had in this man’s search. We need to have our attention drawn to the importance of praying. Men should always pray and not faint. God used the servant’s praying to accomplish his purpose in providing a wife for Abraham’s son. His first prayer was the precursor of God’s stupendous answer, and his prayer of thankfulness in verse 52 is his humble response to God’s blessing. I say, God’s hand was evident throughout this extraordinary venture.
What is the principle that we see here? It is this, that our response in thanksgiving when prayer is answered should be in proportion to the earnestness and longing of our intercession
that God would hear us. If you ask God for a place to park the car then you say ‘Thank you’ as sweetly and briefly as you had asked for help, and then you get on with other pressing duties. However, if you asked for the birth of a healthy child for seven or eight months, if you asked for a job for weeks, if you asked for the safe return of a soldier son from Afghanistan for two years then when such prayers are answered a curt nod to heaven will not do. There must be the deepest thanksgiving from your heart and also testimony to others of how God had heard and granted what you longed for. In other words, the warmth of the thanksgiving is to be commensurate with the earnestness of the initial intercession. Prayer is the instrument of and the response to God’s providence. Do we appreciate the centrality of prayer in God’s plan? Do we thank God adequately with all our hearts as we ought?
Not all answers to prayer are as vivid and evident as the answers Abraham’s servant saw. We might not have been conscious of God mightily working in us last week or last month. Things happen to us day by day; we meet people and we talk to them by arrangement or unexpectedly. We get Email letters and respond to them. We find it hard to judge which were the significant conversations and letters and which were not. Sometimes a sermon seems flat to me but it has changed the life of someone, and the very reverse is also true, a lively sermon is lively by carnal excitement not because the Spirit is present. I dare not trust the sweetest frame. My trust has to be shown in doing the will of God day by day. Yet we know from the words of Christ that in every detail, the fall of the sparrow, the numbering of the hairs on our heads, even in the very breath we breathe God is working out his purposes. We live and move and have our being in the Lord in the smallest and greatest events.
Let me illustrate it like this: you are going for a walk one day in the country when you tread on a worm, and crush it to death. In a while a rattle snake hisses and strikes at you; the children are just behind you and you instinctively strike at it with your walking stick and kill it. In the first case the effect was accidental; that is, it happened without your intention; you had no desire to injure the worm. But in the latter, the effect was according to your purpose; your killing the rattle snake was a consequence of your intention, previously and deliberately formed in your mind. Yet, in both cases you were the cause of the death of those creatures.
In a thousand ways our efforts produce effects, sometimes we didn’t intend such a consequence, and sometimes it was even completely against what we wanted to happen, and other times it was exactly what we planned. My point is this, that nothing like that can possibly happen with God.It would be the height of absurdity to think that accidentally God caused some things to happen that gave God a shock and frustration, that they produced effects which God hadn’t planned at all. You realize that that is impossible. God controls everything but is responsible for nothing that is evil. Think of the death of the Son of God. It was wicked; it was against the will of God. God was in no way responsible for the lying and deceit and bribery and injustice and cruelty that men showed in killing slowly Jesus of Nazareth. They did it. They sinned, and not God. He is not the author of sin, and yet the crucifixion of God was his purpose. He determined beforehand that his Son should become the Lamb of God and take away the sin of the world, and he used Judas, and Caiaphas, and Annas, and Pilate, and the execution squad, and the mob to accomplish his purpose. In Genesis 24 we see God working in every detail of the mission of the servant to find a bride for Isaac. Nothing that occurred surprised God and nothing occurred by luck or chance.
I have shared with you the remarkable providence that happened this summer, but I need to set it all out before you so that you can see the hand of God in it all. On the first Sunday of July we were on vacation in Switzerland, and I was preaching on the Sunday morning in Lausanne Free Church. There I met a Kenyan called Stanley Makokha of the Lui tribe. It was his first Sunday in the church as it was mine. Why was he there? He and two others are engineers working for a large firm in Kenya which has the responsibility of putting fibre-optic cables across East Africa. The machinery that does this is manufactured in Switzerland, and so the three men had been sent there for three weeks to learn how it operates in preparation for the installation which is going on this month. He wanted to worship in an English language church on the Sunday, but the other two had no such desire. They were all staying in Berne, and that was almost two hours’ train journey away, but he wanted to spend the Lord’s Day somewhere where it would advance the gospel in his own life and back in the church he loves in East Africa. So he came searching for God’s blessing on him and his people far away. He was like Abraham’s servant, while I was like Rebekah’s family not dreaming of what was going to happen that day. So what did Stanley do? He knew of no gospel churches in Switzerland and so he searched the web and on the Internet he’d discovered the website of the Lausanne Free Church and determined he would go there on the Sunday, and when he discovered the cost of a train journey from Berne to Lausanne and that it would be a couple of hours he still went ahead and bought his ticket for Lausanne. He found his way through the streets and got to the church. He heard me preach and was very happy. He and Iola and I and a dozen from the congregation spent the day together and he told me about his denomination, the African Church of Jesus Christ in Kenya. They number 52 congregations mainly in Western Kenya and their greatest need is to train their preachers for the ministry. “We want a missionary to come and teach us theology and Christian doctrine.” I told him that I had someone in mind who could do that. I had given Stanley some money in the morning, not much, but as the day went by it was impressed upon me that God had made me this man’s paymaster. I had a pocket full of Swiss francs and everything is expensive in Switzerland even Toblerones. I wasn’t going to buy cuckoo clocks, and so before he left I was able to give him additional money, more than enough money to pay his return fare from Berne to Lausanne. All this was from the Lord.
I took Stanley Makokha’s Email address and wrote to him when I got back home, and he wrote back, and I also spoke to Keith Underhill about him and they began to write to one another. Last month he worshipped in Trinity Baptist Church in Nairobi and heard Keith preach and saw how the church operated and in his correspondence with me told me how delighted he was. That is what they want. Keith has subsequently been out to Western Kenya to meet their leaders including one who is called the bishop. He discovered them to be influenced by Anglicanism though now they are up for whatever reformation the Bible demands. They have looked at Pentecostalism and they do not want to go there. Keith gently referred to the bishop in his purple shirt (having told them that he believes that there is no separate office of a bishop in the Bible). They all said that they were prepared to change even that. Could he show it to them in the Bible? Then they will believe it. So this coming week in early December Keith is visiting them again and this time he is speaking to them about the authority of Scripture, giving them good books to read and mapping out a possible programme of theological training for them. It seems to be the beginning of a fruitful partnership and I hope to meet some of their men in a conference in April. Stanley Makokha is thrilled
with these developments that had their birth so far from Kenya and Aberystwyth, when he was sent to Switzerland and in his heart he was seeking God’s will for the bride of Christ in East Africa. He has writtento the church in Lausanne about it. It was from the Lord. At this time of trial and disappointment in Nairobi with many adversaries God has opened another great and effectual door for Keith. All God’s ways are godlike, matchless and divine.
- THE SERVANT CALLS FOR URGENCY FROM REBEKAH’S FAMILY.
“God is sovereign; he can work at any time so I can sit back and relax.” No. I am always to be abounding in the work of the Lord. I am not to sleep but to watch and wait on my Master. I am to trust God and labour for him. So with this servant there could be no hanging around. He hadn’t gone there on holiday. This wasn’t a hunting trip across the wilderness. He was a man with a mission and this mission was not yet accomplished, and so as you see in verses 54 through 58 he requests to take Rebekah back to Abraham and Isaac immediately. We’re told that after he had told his story that then he ate the prepared meal and the men who were with him. They spent the night there but then the servant arose in the morning and he said it was time to go, “Send me on my way to my master” (v.54).
I am saying that awareness of the Lord’s providence promotes urgency rather than complacency. This theme of immediate obedience runs throughout the book of Genesis. When God told Adam and Eve that there was one tree whose fruit they must never, ever eat then it was not open to debate. Immediate, instant, permanent obedience was the only response. God commanded Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved and offer him, and we’re told that Abraham did what? He rose early the next morning to journey to the land of Moriah. So it is in the passage before us the immediacy of the servant’s faithfulness was apparent throughout the chapter. When food was set before him to eat, he said, “I won’t eat until I have told you my business.” This servant was focused on the Lord’s will, and he would not be deterred by anything. So now here in verse 54 he gets up in the morning, and he says, “I need to be going now.” When they ask for her to remain ten more days he says, “Don’t detain me; the Lord has granted me such success on my journey. I don’t want to grieve him by tardy disobedience. Send me on my way.” Then they ask Rebekah, “Will you go with this man?” “I’ll go,” she said.
It is interesting to note how laws in the ancient near East about marriage contracts differed. Apparently, most of those laws didn’t require the daughter or wife-to-be to give her consent to the marriage. Hurrian marriage laws did require the wife to give her consent. Normally the marriage was simply arranged by the families and the wife just went along with it. But Hurrian marriage laws did say, “Stop and ask the wife if she gives her consent.” I don’t know what the custom was in Mesopotamia at this time. It seems to have been influneced by Hurrian laws for Rebekah was asked what her thoughts were. Did they expect her to say, “Please don’t send me away.” Or, “Please don’t take me away from my family so quickly. Give me a few days to spend with them before I go to another land.” But no, in response to the question, she immediately answered, “I will go” that is “I will go now. I will go right away.”
Moses is informing his readers that Rebekah was totally willing to be married to Isaac. He is telling us about something about the origins of his distinguished mother in the faith and one point he seizes on is her willingness – when she knows something to be the will of God – to do it. I say that it is one of the characteristics in Genesis of the man of God, that he or she is always ready to do God’s bidding and that is one of the winning characteristics of both the servant and of Rebekah. You see how Rebekah’s character is revealed in this chapter in many ways. She’s shown to be a courteous woman. She’s beautiful, she’s humble, she has a buoyant spirit, she’s hard-working, and now we are told she was a woman who was ready to execute the will of God. She would obey God instantly. So I’m saying again that there is no fatalism in believing in the Lord’s providence. Rather, it promotes urgency because God is at work here in all creatures great and small, so we are abounding in the work of the Lord. When the servant of God, the servant of Abraham, knew that God’s hand of providence was upon him it didn’t make him a sluggard, “Well, God will work it out. I don’t need to bustle.” No, it made him prompt and attentive to do God’s will. Rebekah too saw God’s hand of providence in this strange meeting. Did it make her think, “Well . . . God will work all the details out?” No, it made her respond urgently to God’s calls for obedience.
- THE SERVANT BRINGS REBEKAH SAFELY BACK TO ISAAC.
We need to remember the big picture that God is maintaining the covenant line in bringing Rebekah to Isaac. That line cannot be broken. The promised son of Abraham yet to be born who will be the Messiah and Saviour of the world is going to come. That is the main purpose of this chapter and as it is set in a love story our emotions are brought to covenant theology. But we are also intended to appreciate the precious little details that the Holy Spirit included. For example,
i] We are told that Rebekah’s family sent their darling daugher on her way (v.59), that is, they all came and accompanied her to the edge of the little town and kissed her good-bye and waved at her until she went out of sight. She did not slink out of the city. This was no shotgun marriage. It was an honourable, loving departure because everyone knew that this was the will of God that the pure virgin Rebekah should marry Abraham’s son.
ii] We are also told that Rebekah’s family sent her away with a rich benediction. “Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies” (v.60). Maybe it was a conventional blessing (like the Gaelic ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’), though said here with total sincerity. It echoes what God had already promised to Abraham and to those who followed after him in the faith (Gen 22:17). Rebekah’s family had no idea in what extraordinary ways God would fulfil that conventional blessing, that 4,000 years later the children of Abraham would include men and women in distant Aberystwyth who would meet to worship God and hear about Rebekah. So God’s plan touched little people as well as the central personalities.
iii] We are also told that Rebekah’s maids went along in the retinue that attended her on the journey to Canaan. The family didn’t just talk the talk to her, saying words of blessing and waving and weeping, no, they sent off her best friends to go and live in Canaan with her. The most prominent of these was Deborah who became a faithful old retainer in the family for
two generations. In fact we know that Deborah would live at Bethel throughout her life (Gen 35:8).
iv] Then finally the young ones met and quickly love grew. See the memorable scene when the camels return to Abraham’s house (vv.62-65). Here is a lonely man living in the south, near their well, no doubt looking after the vast herds of sheep and donkeys and cattle down there. He has returned to see his father and hear the report on the mission of the servant. What is he doing? He is not carousing with his friends, he is out in the field, meditating and praying. Isn’t that a wonderful place to see your husband, when he is praying? I can’t resist telling you that it was in a prayer meeting fifty years ago last September that my wife first set her eyes on me! And there I also first met her – half a century ago. Isaac heard the sound of the caravan returning and he lifted up his eyes, and he saw the camels coming back. Rebekah, anxious to meet her husband spots a man and she immediately dismounts. She does not want to meet her groom high over him sitting on a beast, but looking up to him, showing him respect. “Who’s that?” she asks. This great servant, so relieved that he has brought her back, says simply, “My master” and with one more report to make he disappears from the pages of the Bible. One day I shall enjoy talking with him. Rebekah immediately veils herself (v.65) to identify herself to him as Isaac’s future bride, and also she does it out of modesty. This veil was a sign of betrothal and it identified her to Abraham’s son as his wife to be.
The servant’s last task is to give the whole story to Isaac, but we are spared the account of a third long rerun of those last weeks. She was taken into the tent of his dead mother. This indicated to everyone that she was now the mistress of this household, the woman that God had appointed as matriarch in this family. “So she became Isaac’s wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (v.67). Abraham may now depart in peace. The covenant has been handed down. The hope of the world now rests on Isaac and Rebekah.
What a meeting it was on that serene summer night under the myriad stars of the middle east. It was faith meeting faith. Faith, venturous and bold – Rebekah! It met faith that was meditating and meek – Isaac! On the one hand there is the faith that not all the perils of a long journey into the unknown could daunt – Rebekah! On the other hand, there is the faith that rest as it communes with God in the fields – Isaac! Rebekah could look at her husband, glad to see him not very old, a kind face and to her, beautiful. Isaac who might have despaired at ever finding a wife could lift up his eyes and gaze at the one to whom he would be united for the rest of his life – the two now one in the Lord. They were different characters and yet congenial souls, and the marriage arranged by divine providence and love would have its fair share of the happiness which holy matrimony is fitted to yield to those who marry in the Lord. God is good, and when we seek first his kingdom, he adds to us all things.
The best way to prepare for marriage is to become the most godlike person you can be right now.
If you have marriage on your mind then focus less on future betrothal and more on trusting in God today.
If God’s will for you is to get married then he will bring the right person into your life at the right time, and if it is not his will for you to marry he will give you contentment and peace.
6th December 2009 GEOFF THOMAS