Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Promised Bride

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

The most important decision many people will make in life is who they will marry, who will be their spouse, who will they spend their life with. A lot hinges on this decision. The right choice can fill your life with happiness and joy, but the wrong choice can fill your life with misery and disappointment.

The book of Proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.”

The servant of Abraham, Eliezer, had been given an awesome responsibility: find a wife for Abraham’s heir, Isaac. This was a particularly important task because Isaac was the son of promise, the one that God had promised to give to Abraham, the one through whom Abraham would be made a great nation, the one through whom all the world would be blessed. It was absolutely imperative that the right woman be found to fulfill God’s promises.

Abraham gave Eliezer one criteria—and in doing so established himself as the first in a long line of Jewish parents—she must be a nice Jewish girl. He was not to find Isaac a wife among the Canaanites, but he had to travel back to Mesopotamia, back to Abraham’s people.

In those days there was no J-date—the leading online network for Jewish singles. In the Bible, the place where you went if you wanted to meet a potential spouse was the well. Not only did Eliezer meet Rebekah at a well, but Jacob met Rachel at a well, and Moses met his wife Zaphora at one as well. Think also of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.

When our reading begins, Eliezer is recounting what happened when he went to the well. Abraham told him that the angel of the Lord would go before him to direct his choice and so he asked the Lord for a sign. The woman who would give him a drink, and water his camels also, would be the one that God had chosen. This is sometimes referred to as “the Camel Test.”

There is a modern version of this test as well. When you are out on a dinner date, how does he treat the server and staff? Does he show kindness and respect to strangers? Whether or not he does, is a pretty good indicator of his character and what kind of spouse he would make.

Eliezer wanted to see if the woman he would meet would act unselfishly out of kindness of heart. Would she offer to water his camels too? Would she expect anything in return?

Rebekah, acted without hesitation to provide for his need when asked. Not only did she give him a drink, but she took it upon herself to retrieve water for his camels as well. It was second nature for her to do so. This was no small task either. Commentators remark that it would have taken 140 gallons of water to provide for ten camels. She exerted significant labor to go to the well again and again with water for the thirsty animals. All of this she did for a stranger. Abraham’s servant Eliezer watched her in silence and knew with certainty that this was the woman God had chosen.

The scriptures tell us that Rebekah was young, beautiful, and chaste but her preeminent quality was what is called in Hebrew, “hesed.” It is notoriously difficult to translate but is sometimes translated into English as the compound word, “Loving-kindness.”

Hesed is more than kindness. It goes beyond mere temperament to concrete service and action. It is kindness that acts for the good of others. It is kindness that goes above and beyond mere courtesy.  It is boundless, gratuitous, generosity. The Old Testament scholar Daniel Block defines it this way, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.” 

It was this characteristic of boundless generosity and hospitality that Eliezer saw in his master Abraham that he looked for also in the woman who would be Isaac’s wife.

It is this loving-kindness—clothing the naked,
providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick, comforting mourners and providing a dignified burial for the dead—love as deed that  is meant to distinguish God’s people.

Hesed is a covenant word. As well as being about love in action, it also denotes faithfulness, loyalty, and steadfastness. It is the ideal characteristic of a spouse.

It is also an attribute of God himself. Eliezer says, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His loving-kindness (Hesed) and His truth toward my master.”

Hesed describes God’s “covenant faithfulness,” and commitment to his promises. God has bound himself in loyalty and fidelity to his people. Loyalty to God demands that our lives reflect the same “loving-kindness” and “covenant faithfulness.”

God spoke to his people through the prophet Hosea, "I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion.”

All of which should be a clue that there is something more going on in this story. Just as we found last week with the story of “the binding of Isaac,” there is a deeper spiritual meaning to be found in this text. The Early Church read this story as suggesting a correspondence with God’s own betrothal of his people. As a picture of Christ and his bride the Church. We have been betrothed to Christ "at the well," in baptism.

Just as our lesson ends with Rebekah being presented to her bridegroom and the joyful consummation of their union, so scripture ends with
the marriage supper of the lamb, with his people, the New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

But how will Christ recognize his betrothed when he finds her? By what characteristic shall God demonstrate the she is the one he has chosen? How else but how Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, knew Rebekah? God’s chosen will be recognized by her loving-kindness, by her deeds of love, and her covenant faithfulness.

He will know her by the cup of cold water given to the stranger. As Jesus declares in today’s Gospel lesson, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!”

When Christ returns in glory with all his holy angels he will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me… Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’