Finding a Wife for Isaac: Rebekah’s Story

Meditation on Genesis 24, selected verses

First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown

Pastor Karen Crawford

Mother’s Day

May 14, 2023

I was juggling a journalism career and caring for three boys, the youngest of whom was in elementary school, when Jim and I met. He was a local pastor, and I had covered a Celtic worship service at his church as a feature story.

I didn’t have time or energy to date. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to allow another man into my life. I needed to care for my children. He told me he would wait until I did have time for him – and wanted a friend. No matter long it might take.

When I talk to young families today, I remember those exhausting years, when they had their activities with school and friends and homework. They got sick and needed to go to doctors and be cared for at home. And there was only me to care for them, and I was working full time.

Looking back to those years, I know that we survived by the love and grace of God.

I wanted to share the story of Rebekah for my Mother’s Day message this year because her story never comes up in the lectionary cycle. We hear a little about her sons and their stories, but nothing about the mother of two nations—Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau). And compared to my story of wife and motherhood, she had many more challenges, although she did have help. She married into a wealthy family that had servants.

But let’s talk about how she didn’t have a choice about marriage or her future. She couldn’t have a “career.” Or, I should say her career was getting married and having children. She wouldn’t have any choice about the man she would marry or where she would end up living when she became his wife.

When Abraham’s servant was sent to her community to get a wife, the word we translate “get” is literally “to take, seize or possess,” terms that define marriage in their Near Eastern context from the perspective of the groom. Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna says,“The narrative also reflects the custom of the parent initiating the marriage transaction.”

That they meet at a well was natural, for a newly arrived stranger, coming on camels in a hot, arid climate would need to find water. It was the place to find valuable information and gossip from the townsfolk and shepherds. Moses did the same thing and met his wife to be at a well. And Rebekah’s son, Jacob, fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, would also meet his wife, Rachel, a shepherdess, at a well.

Rebekah never met her husband before she agreed to marry him. Did she know he was a man in his 40s of few words, who had never dated or left home? Probably not. Did she know he was the only child of an aging mother who before his birth in her 90s had been unable to conceive? She probably did not know Isaac’s story at all.

Many scholars point out the passivity of Isaac’s character and the fact that he is rarely caught in dialogue with other people, and when he speaks, he seems young for his age.  For example, in the story of the binding of Isaac, he is a teenager, and yet he is trusting like a small boy when he accompanies his father up the mountain to his almost sacrifice. Scholars today believe Isaac had some special needs and this was the reason that he was closely watched, protected, and cared for by his mother, Sarah, until she died—and this was the impetus for Abraham, his aging father, to send out his servant to find a wife from his own kin for Isaac.  

The servant who shares Abraham’s fervent faith is a praying man, seeking God to guide him. He is sent to the hometown of Nahor, Abraham’s brother. This place, Aram-naharaim, isn’t mentioned in any other passage in the Bible. So where exactly it was, we aren’t sure. The name “naharaim” means “the land along the river.” But through divine intervention, the one who meets the faithful man at the well and offers him water and waters his camels is the one for whom the servant has prayed from the heart. This is Rebekah, a beautiful young girl, much younger than Isaac. She is the granddaughter of Nahor and his wife Milcah. She is Abraham’s great niece, which today in our culture would make her ineligible for marriage to her cousin. But in Abraham’s day, the relationship is perfect, a match made in heaven.

The servant, upon discovering her identity, impresses her with his expensive presents– a gold nose ring weighing a half shekel and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels. The servant bears more lavish gifts: “jewelry of silver and of gold and garments (for) Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments.”

After the servant shares his story with Rebekah’s brother and father, they agree that this “thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good.  Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”

Rebekah is obedient. The family sends her away with a blessing. She has no idea what her husband will look like. She sees him walking in a field and asks the servant who he is. The servant says, “It is my master.” So she takes her veil and covers herself. Near Eastern women were usually unveiled, like us, but brides were veiled in the marriage ceremony, as some choose to be today. Rachel veiling herself upon meeting Isaac is her “unspoken signal to (him) that she is his bride.”

After the servant explains to Isaac who Rebekah is, Isaac brings her into his mother Sarah’s tent. By this act, she formally becomes the successor to the matriarch, and the continuity of the generations is assured.

And here’s the most important detail. Isaac loves her. Arranged marriages didn’t mean there wasn’t love.

 And Isaac is comforted after his mother’s death. So it isn’t just that he needs his mother or another woman to care for him. It is that her death brings so much grief and loss, that he cannot bear to go on without her.

It will be 20 years before Rebekah will conceive. The Hebrew Bible calls her “barren,” with the ancient assumption that the problem is with Rebekah’s body—and not Isaac’s. She gives birth to twin boys after a hard pregnancy, so much so that she prays to God, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The Lord speaks to her, saying, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

Isaac, who is 60 when his sons are born, loves Esau, the strong hunter who provides meat for him to eat, while Rebekah loves Jacob, a mild man who enjoys staying at the camp, at home with his mother, helping with the cooking. But her favorite son will be forced to leave her as a young man, before he is married—as a result of her trying to help him become the person God wants him to be. She leads him to steal the blessing of Isaac, meant for the firstborn. It is very likely that she never sees him again, when he flees for his life!

I can imagine how her heart must have been broken to be separated from him and wonder, for the rest of her days, how his life turned out. I know she would want him to be happy—to marry, have children, and be loved. I am sure a day doesn’t go without her missing him and wondering if she made the right choices.

Jacob lives a complicated life, filled with sadness and pain in giving up his home and family, but also joy, love, and goodness. Rebekah’s grandson, Joseph, will be responsible for saving the lives of many people, including Jacob and his family, when Joseph rises from slavery to become second in command to Pharoah in Egypt. If only she had lived to know the wonderful things that would happen because of her faithfulness to God—marrying the man whom God had chosen for her and accepting the life God had ordained for her and her sons, though it wasn’t easy.

Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to encourage all the mothers who haven’t had easy lives. Who have made choices and sometimes questioned their choices. Or felt that things were so out of their control—and there weren’t enough choices. I want to encourage all the mothers and grandmothers who have spent sleepless nights worrying about their husbands and children and grandchildren and themselves. And all the mothers who are exhausted from their busy lives, juggling jobs and caring for loved ones and not always having time or energy for selfcare.

I want to tell you that God is with you and hears you when you cry out in prayer. And everything will be OK, though nothing will ever be perfect. You know that the plans you have for yourself and your family may not be God’s plans. But you can trust in God’s love. Hold onto your hopes and dreams for the future.

I want to say thank you to my own mother for bringing me into this world and giving me life, and for doing all the exhausting things for me that I have tried to do for my children. I can’t imagine that being my mother has ever been easy. I know my mom always wanted me to be happy and well—and still wants this for me. And I want this for her, too, especially since my dad died in 2019 and I know it’s hard to have an empty house, with no one to care for after decades of caring for loved ones.

I want to say thank you to my husband, Jim, who waited for me and helped me and loved me when I struggled to love myself in those early, exhausting days and years, and still loves me, and waits for me, and has helped me be a better mother and better human being and faithful child of God, because of his love and faith and patience.

And I want to say thank you to the Lord, whose love is poured into my heart for my family and my church family, a God who continually provides for us, and whose grace is always sufficient for me.

Will you pray with me? Let us pray.

Holy One, you are Divine Parent, both Father and Mother to us all. Thank you for our families, especially our mothers, who have helped to make us who we are today. Thank you for your love and grace, for always being there to listen and answer our prayers for our spouses, children, and grandchildren—and for ourselves. Thank you for always being with our loved ones and embracing them with YOUR perfect love. Help us to trust in you, that even in the face of difficulties, loneliness, failed efforts, and broken dreams, such as in the example of Rebekah, that you will bring all things to work together for good for those who love you and live according to your word. In the name of our Triune God we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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