This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. This morning I was the guest preacher in the Church of Christ where my husband is a member. The Scripture the sermon is based on is Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67 (really the whole passage). The picture referred to is attached at the end of this post, as well as a bonus stained-glass window of the Matriarch Rebekah (or Rivqa, as her name is better transliterated). The stained-glass window is one of a series of windows of the matriarchs commissioned for Beth Shaom Synagogue, in the Netherlands.
Good morning. I should start by thanking the elders for the opportunity to preach here today; I don’t get to be here very often, and it’s a real privilege, when I do have the chance, to also contribute in some way.
And this morning I want to look a little bit at the reading we had from Genesis. It’s a stunning piece of text; the great romance of the old testament, and the details of the descriptions of jewellery and camels and veils in the wilderness are supposed to make our hearts thump as we’re swept up in the delicious drama of it all.
(I say it’s the great romance of the old testament, because of all the patriarchs and heroes of ancient Israel, Isaac is the only one shown to have married only once, with no concubines or maidservants or flings on the side. Apparently Rebekah, even when she didn’t produce children for the first twenty years of their marriage, was the only woman he ever wanted or needed. And I’ll say some more about that later).
But the part of the story that we heard today is kicked off a little earlier when Abraham, who’s getting old and obviously concerned about the future of his family, and the legacy that God has promised him through Isaac, decides that Isaac needs a wife. And, more to the point, not a wife from among the people of Canaan, where Abraham’s family are living as foreigners, and where the local population are participants in the local pagan fertility cult, but from among Abraham’s own relatives, who are living some distance away but who worship the same God.
So we get the whole story with the faithful servant being sent off to find a suitable wife from among Abraham’s nieces. And the servant finds Rebekah, as we heard described this morning, and the rest is history.
But it’s also more than history. In the unfolding story of Genesis, Rebekah is also presented as something of a feminine archetype. What I mean by that is, she’s held up as an example or model of what the ideal woman – and in particular, what the ideal wife – is to be, in the community which considers itself the heirs to Abraham’s promise.
But it gets even more heady than that. As the identity of the Hebrew people developed, they often – and you see this in the writings of the prophets, in particular – understood the whole community to be like a wife to God. As in, the relationship between God and God’s people was as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage. And so all the ideas about what an ideal wife looked like, then carried over in some ways to be ideas about what Israel should ideally be, in their relationship with God.
And of course Christians picked up that set of ideas too. In the new testament, we read in various places about the Church as the “bride of Christ,” and about the wedding of the lamb and the Church as the fulfillment of what we’re supposed to be on about.
So what I’m saying is, when we read the story of a matriarch like Rebekah, who is held up as such an ideal example of wifeliness, we can read it for clues to how the ancient Hebrews understood themselves in their relationship with God; and, following in the same line of thought, how early Christian leaders like Paul thought about the Church in our relationship with God. There’s a clear line of these ideas being picked up and developed and handed on and reflected on some more, right down to us.
So what I really want to do this morning is look at the story of Rebekah, and see what it might have to say to us about the identity of the Church, as the people who are, collectively, in a relationship as intimate, as loving, and as binding as marriage, with the God we worship.
And I think the first thing to notice is this reality that Rebekah isn’t one of the local pagan women, but that she is culturally different. Sometimes – although it’s a little out of fashion now – we talk about the need for the church not to be “worldly,” not to be caught up in the obsessions and deceptions that those who don’t know God get caught up in. We need to understand those worldly things – at least enough to help others reflect on them in the light of the gospel – but we need to not buy into them. And that’s what Rebekah’s being already a worshipper of the one true God represents for us.
Next, we see that she’s hard working, and generous. Abraham’s servant meets her when she’s gone to draw water, heavy labour, but necessary for the household. And when he interrupts her work, not only does she give him a drink, as he’s requested, but she also offers unprompted to water his camels. That’s a lot of water! A thirsty camel can drink over 100 litres of water in one go; and earlier in the text is says that Abraham’s servant set out with ten camels, so for each of those camels Rebekah did the heavy work of raising, carrying and pouring water. Think about what it would feel like to lug a literal tonne or so of water around, one water-jar at a time, and you’ll see that this was significant physical labour.
Costly generosity and hospitality; absolutely fundamental virtues in the world of the ancient wilderness nomads, where this was how people survived. I’m hospitable to you today, and you’re hospitable to me tomorrow, and between us we both might make it to see our children grow up.
But again, translate that to the Church, and we can see where this applies to us. To be generous, to be hospitable. To provide an oasis in our communities for people who are exhausted, starving, wounded or lost. To foster relationships of mutual support and encouragement. To be willing to put ourselves out, with back breaking labour if need be, to make that possible. And when we realise that what’s at stake is not just survival in the wilderness, but people’s eternal fate, how much more should we be willing to put ourselves out?
The bit about Rebekah being “fair to look upon” is interesting. Beauty is often a kind of story-tellers’ shorthand for this being a good person, because after all, the heroine is always beautiful, isn’t she? We might want to question that assumption, in general, because people who are, for whatever reason, not seen as beautiful aren’t actually any less capable or valuable because of that! But for the purposes of Rebekah’s story as it’s being told here, take it as read that she’s beautiful because she’s the heroine, and that that general idea of being good, desirable, and so forth, applies to her… and therefore, in the extended comparison we’re making, also to the Church. Our beauty lies in reflecting God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s holiness; and so the more closely our character and attitudes reflect God’s, the more “beautiful” we will become in the sense that it matters here.
Also, Rebekah is, at the point where Abraham’s servant meets her, a virgin. The virginity is important because it shows that her commitment is serious. She hasn’t left someone else to be with Isaac, and she hasn’t been frivolous in her relationships to this point. When she gives herself to her husband, there’s some gravity to her decision. And it’s also worth noting that – remarkably for the time, and despite negotiations amongst her male relatives – it is her decision. She’s asked whether she will go to be Isaac’s wife, and she says she will.
And again, we can see how this relates to us as the Church. God has initiated the offer of relationship, but we each choose – consent, even – to take God up on that offer. We come each to the waters of baptism of our own free will. We make that commitment to turn to Christ, ideally with some seriousness and gravity to the decision. And we can’t be compelled to do it, or sold into doing it, or otherwise forced; our relationship with God, to be what it should be, needs to be entered into freely, responsibly, and joyfully, just as Rebekah did with Isaac.
And the Church as a whole – as a body, even – needs to live out that commitment in the same spirit that we each individually make it. Seeking to know God’s will so that we can say, in response, “We will,” and then live that out, as a matter of serious commitment, with integrity.
(As an aside, this matter of Rebekah’s consent is relevant for us in another way. Based on this question put to Rebekah, in Jewish law it is required that a bride freely consent to her marriage. We have continued this in Christian practice; a marriage is not valid without the free consent of both parties. And the women of the church might have plenty of reason to be grateful for the custom – built on rabbinic interpretation of this passage – which says we can’t simply be traded as property between our menfolk!)
Anyway. Let me skip forward a bit in the story, past the passage that we read today, and point out that later on it says that Rebekah was barren, and that it’s only after God intervenes in answer to prayer that she is able to conceive. Her fertility – her ability to participate in God’s will for the world – only comes about because God enables it.
Our fruitfulness for God is usually less literal and more spiritual than the actual bearing of children, but it’s an important reminder to us that all that we’re able to do, only comes to us because of God’s gracious acts in creating and providing for us (again, what in slightly more old-fashioned terms Christians used to talk about as “divine providence”). And this ought to be encouraging, because it means it doesn’t depend on us. The kingdom of God doesn’t depend on our frail strength, our limited intelligence, our wavering steadfastness. God used a barren woman to be the mother of nations. What might he bring about in and through us, despite our faults and disadvantages? We can be open and hopeful and look for the unexpected, because we know that that’s how God works in the world.
Then, it gets even better. She’s pregnant with twins, and they’re struggling together in the womb. Wondering what this might mean, she goes to ask God. And the text says “God said to her…” She didn’t need an intermediary, her husband, a priest, or whatever. She went to God and God spoke to her, explaining that the two children in her womb will become two nations, and – more importantly – that God has chosen the one who will be born second. Again, contrary to all custom of the time, God’s blessing and the dominant role will be given to the younger son. And later on, after the boys have grown, Rebekah acts to make sure that this is how things turn out.
She sought God, listened to what God had to say, accepted it despite it being shocking, and acted in accordance with it. This has led to her being seen as the first prophetess, and the first woman since Eve that Scripture says was spoken to directly by God, without an angel or other go-between.
We’re supposed to do that, as a church, too, aren’t we? Seek God, listen to what God says, accept it – whether it conforms to our expectations or not – and then act in accordance with it. We are, in fact, supposed to be a prophetic community, receiving God’s despatches to a broken world, living out what we hear so that it becomes real and concrete for those around us.
I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting the point. This portrait of Rebekah that the author of Genesis offers us is one that the Church ought to be able to look at, seeing a family resemblance to who we are. But before I finish, I want to show you something which might give you another image for some of the same ideas.
What you’re looking at now is, believe it or not, a wedding ring. Not one that someone would wear every day, obviously, but a symbolic heirloom, handed down between generations of the same family. For centuries, Jewish families have made wedding rings like this. And the whole point is that the ring is given to the bride, and the building – which is a symbol both for the family home, and for the temple in Jerusalem – is built on the foundation of the ring; it stands on the solidness of the marriage.
In much the same way, the future that God is building in our midst stands on the foundation of our relationship with God. Just as God worked through Rebekah, the ideal Israelite wife, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God had promised, so God works through us, the Church, the bride of Christ, to bring about God’s purposes and the future God has promised. And – you might remember that earlier I mentioned that Isaac is the one patriarch who never had another woman in his life – in return, God promises God’s presence and love and joy to us, to a unique degree. The flip side of the Church being for God, is that God is for the Church.
God calls us to be, like Rebekah, a community which is oriented to God rather than the world around us. God calls us to be hard working, hospitable and generous. God calls us to reflect God’s beauty to the world, and calls us to be single-minded in our freely chosen commitment to God. God calls us to be open to God being at work among us, providing a future and hope, letting God bring about fruitfulness in and through our lives. God calls us to be prophetic; seeking God’s words, listening to them, and living them out.
It’s a high calling. It’s comforting to me, at least, to know that real men and women have walked in it before us, and have been blessed as they have done so. But Rebekah the matriarch has long since surrendered her care and gone to her rest. It’s up to us, now, to be a living portrait – or even, dare I say, an icon – of God’s grace to our world.
And I hope, as you seek to do that, this morning’s exploration of the life of this remarkable woman has given you a helpful resource to draw upon.