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September 25th, 2017

All the Way

We are not wise enough to choose on our own.

Genesis 24:1-14

 

God guides

When Linda and I traveled in Europe a decade ago, among our favorite places was Zurich, the home of Ulrich Zwingli, one of the “big three” sixteenth century Protestant reformers. Singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in Grossmunster (Zwingli’s church), on Reformation Sunday, was humbling. Recently we learned that we can trace Linda’s ancestry to Zurich and the Reformed church during Zwingli’s era.

On our boat tour of Lake Zurich, we sat with a honeymooning couple of Indian descent from England. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents, and I’ll never forget the 20-something husband saying, “We don’t understand why westerners think they can make a choice as important as marriage on their own. We are not wise enough to choose well.” They had only known each other for an hour or so before the wedding.

Fifty-five percent of marriages in the world today, and 90% of marriages in India, are arranged marriages. The divorce rate for arranged marriages in India is 1%, and 6% worldwide. In some places, there are severe consequences if one leaves an arranged marriage, but that’s not true everywhere, and wasn’t true for the couple we met. It’s our way of choosing partners – dating with virtually no training or guidance – that is odd.

It would be a mistake to read Genesis 24 as an affirmation of arranged marriages as the biblical way to choose a partner. However, it speaks a powerful word to every culture about how God directs the believer, not only in marriage but in all our key choices.

Genesis progressively unfolds God’s story. Each chapter layers a new understanding of God. With Adam, God creates and instructs. With Noah, God promises. With Abraham, God calls, tests and provides.

In Genesis 24, God guides. What’s new in this story is that God does not speak audibly to Abraham. He had apparently spoken out loud to tell Abraham to leave his home and people, to promise him many descendants, and to give him the terrifying command to kill his son on Mount Moriah.

Now in chapter 24, the longest chapter in Genesis and the most detailed single story about Abraham, we see Abraham modeling in a very positive way how to look to God for guidance without a miracle or a theophany. This is normal for you and me, right? It would be nice to hear God speak when we are deciding whom to marry, or, for most of us in this room, maybe whether to intervene with our grown children when they are making the decision of whom to marry. But he doesn’t, usually.

Let’s broaden this reflection on guidance. Sometimes we need to make decisions about what to do with our money or our time. We may need wisdom on education or a job. It could be something as simple as whether to accept an invitation to a party or as life-altering as if or how to treat a cancer diagnosis. We make decisions all the time, and as God’s people we want God’s guidance. How does that happen if God isn’t talking out loud? This passage provides a number of helpful principles.

Start moving (1-4)

Abraham was now not only “old” but “very old” (1). Some scholars even believe by the end of Genesis 24 he is dead. It’s true that we read about his death and burial in the following chapter, but it’s quite possible that the events of chapter 25 happen in the middle of chapter 24 but the narrator doesn’t want to interrupt a good story.

Having lived a long life and a blessed life (1), Abraham realizes there is unfinished business. If Abraham is to have innumerable descendants, Isaac needs a wife.

Abraham called to himself his most senior and trusted servant. Some think this is Eliezer (15:2), but I think if that were the case he would have been named. I’m going to call him “Boolie,” after Morgan Freeman’s character in Driving Miss Daisy. Like Boolie, this man is loyal, dignified, and diligent – but still a servant. Abraham asks Boolie to swear an oath he will not find a wife for Isaac among the Canaanites, where Abraham has lived for decades if not a full century. Boolie must find Isaac a mate among Abraham’s relatives “in the old country” (4), as my Dad used to say.

The reason for Isaac not marrying a Canaanite is not necessarily religious. There may have been Canaanites who worshiped Yahweh. The reason is that if God is going to give this land to Abraham and eventually displace the Canaanites, there must not be a prior marital alliance between Abraham’s line and the Canaanites.

We have in this first section of Genesis 24 our first principle about seeking God’s guidance: start moving. I’ve heard it said even God can’t guide a parked car. Okay, “can’t” is too strong, but you get the point. If you want God to direct you, you need to start moving ahead. Let him open doors and close doors, but you have to move toward the doors. That’s what Abraham did. He took action.

Remember what God has said (5-9)

Boolie asks Abraham a good question: “What’s Plan B?” His words: “What if she’s unwilling to come?” (5) Boolie suggests he could take Isaac to the old country so he could do a little convincing in person (5).

“Absolutely not,” Abraham answers (6). He knows well that if Isaac goes somewhere else and finds a girl, her attraction to her own home and family will be strong. Isaac might stay there.

What’s wrong with that? This isn’t just about finding a girl for his boy. This is about the revealed will of God. The promises of God to Abraham were about his descendants in this land. Isaac can’t marry a Canaanite, but neither can he marry a girl and live somewhere other than Canaan. All this is about God’s clear word to Abraham. If the woman won’t come, Abraham tells his servant, you’re off the hook (8).

They seal the oath with Boolie placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh (9). I’ve read or heard a dozen explanations of that action. They all amount to this: I give you my word. As one preacher I heard this week said, I’d rather swear on the Bible.

This is our second principle when you are making a decision: Remember what God has said. Abraham didn’t have the Bible, but he had a few instances of God’s direct, clear will, spoken out loud to him. We have a whole Bible full of clear truths. To be sure, there are many parts of the Bible over which Christians disagree.

But don’t forget there are also very clear teachings. For example, Paul is quite clear that a believer should not marry an unbeliever or even have sexual relations with someone outside the faith (1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1). It is, in fact, the Bible’s only clear teaching about whom to marry. It never says how old you need to be, for example or that you shouldn’t marry interracially. Just don’t marry someone with whom you cannot be one spiritually. Paul also says that you if you are married to an unbeliever, that’s not grounds for divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).

Abraham is modeling this principle: When you’re making a decision, remember what God has said. He didn’t have the Scriptures. We do. Read the Bible. Some decisions become clearer by being people of the Book.

Ask for God’s direction, and mean it (10-14)

The next scene is intriguing as well as instructive. The servant loads up ten camels with “all kinds of good things” (10). This is not going to be an ordinary marriage proposal. This is like loading up ten tractor trailers with the best of the best. Put a Corvette in one, fashion from Prada and Ralph Lauren in another, gourmet foods and fine wines in another, furnishings from Century, Designmaster, and Hickory Furniture Mart in another, jewelry from Bulgari and Tiffany in another. You get the idea.

The journey is long – probably about 500 miles. He’s reversing the course Abraham had made, back through what we now know as Israel, Lebanon, and Syria into southeast Turkey near the mouth of the Euphrates. Abraham’s brother Haran had died back in Ur, but his other brother Nahor had followed their dad to upper Mesopotamia.

The camel caravan needs at least a month, probably longer, to arrive in the town where Abraham’s relatives live. On arrival, Boolie knows just where to find eligible young women – at the well on the edge of town. There our narrator tells us what he prays, “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham” (12).

“Kindness” is not the best translation, but I’m not sure what is. This is the Hebrew word chesed, one of the most important theological words in the Old Testament. The word is not used in Genesis until the story of Abraham, and here in chapter 24 it’s used for the first time about God’s chesed to his covenant promises. The servant’s prayer recognizes that he knows this is not just any marriage. God’s covenant to bless Abraham with innumerable descendants is in play.

Boolie continues with a specific prayer request, “As these women come to draw water, I’m going to ask one of them for a drink. If she answers, ‘Sure, and let me draw water for your camels as well,’ I’ll know she’s the one. I’ll know you have shown chesed to Abraham” (13-14, paraphrase).

Why is watering the camels so important? A thirsty man can drink maybe a quart or two. There are other men along as well (32), but her well bucket probably held about 3 gallons. One bucket was likely enough water for all the humans.

But camels? A thirsty camel can drink 25 gallons of water. I don’t know if they were all on empty or not, but neither would the young woman. What Boolie is asking is that this woman would be willing to pull up 80-100 buckets of water without knowing anything about this man or his mission.

Boolie is asking in advance for a clear and visible sign from God. The principle is this: Ask for God’s direction, and mean it. Boolie’s prayer is a prayer of submission. He knows, “We are not wise enough to make this decision.” If I’ve already decided what to do and then I ask for God to bless what I’ve decided, I’m likely to “hear” him affirm what I want. Allowing God to redirect before I get too far in is what this prayer is all about.

Watch for God’s fingerprints (15-21)

We meet the girl in verse 15. We learn her name is Rebekah, and learn that she is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother. Marrying cousins was not unusual.

We also learn she’s a gorgeous virgin (16). I’m not sure how Boolie knows the second piece – maybe virgins dressed differently. But she captures his attention and he rushes to her, asking for a drink. “Sure,” she answers, “and let me water your camels as well” (19). Prayer answered!

As she runs back and forth from camels to well, Boolie “watched her closely” (21, NIV). The Hebrew word used comes from a root word that is used of a town that is devastated – maybe by an earthquake (think Mexico City), a flood (think Puerto Rico), or a war. This verb is reflexive, however, as in he “devastated himself.” As Boolie gazed at her beauty, efficiency, and servant heart, he was stunned into silence.

Here’s the guidance principle in this part of the story: Watch for God’s fingerprints. God often (not always) confirms his direction with what we might call “signs.” God opens doors and closes them. That’s all the way through the Bible.

But what happens here is not all the way through the Bible, at least not in this form. Boolie asks God in advance for a specific sign. There are only a couple of other places in the Bible where someone does that and God graciously answers – the most famous of which is Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6:36-40).

Those stories, however, including this one in Genesis 24, are relatively early in the Bible, and I don’t think they’re advocating an approach to prayer that says, “Lord, the next girl who walks in front of me will be my wife,” or, “If I get an email between 11 and 12 tomorrow, I’ll know that’s the job you want me to take.” As John Walton writes in his commentary, the fallacy is thinking I “can push God into a corner…. Rather than forcing God’s hand, we need to learn to see his fingerprints on our lives” (Genesis, 540).

Listen for God through others (22-67)

The rest of the chapter finds Boolie retelling most of what we’ve already read to others. Boolie rehearses his mission and what God has done for Rebekah’s family.

Boolie already believes he’s found God’s choice for Isaac’s wife, but the choice needs to be ratified by others. Rebekah’s brother, Laban, comes out to the spring to see the caravan for himself (29). Laban will re-emerge in Genesis as a rather deceitful and greedy character. He’s very impressed with the ten tractor-trailer loads of stuff, and he’s all in. There’s likely to be some benefit for him if his sister marries up.

Boolie then meets Rebekah’s father, Bethuel. When they hear Boolie’s account, Laban and Bethuel exclaim, “This is from the LORD” (50). Boolie meets Rebekah’s mother (53), and even though there’s a hiccup or two, she’s in as well. Finally, Rebekah herself agrees to leave her family for the 500-mile camel ride to marry a guy she’s never met (58), and Isaac receives her as his bride. For the first time in Genesis, it’s recorded that a man loved his wife (67). We never read that about Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, or Abraham and Sarah.

All these people had to confirm God’s guidance to the servant. Remember, this is a story about God’s guidance when he doesn’t talk out loud or do anything miraculous. The principle here is this: Listen for God’s voice through others. As the story plays out, even though God is involved at each step, the servant needs human approval – even from at least one very suspicious character.

God uses the people around us to confirm his guidance. We live in a very independent world where we all think we have the right to make up our own minds about major decisions. When we’re trying to listen for God’s voice, it’s likely that he’ll speak to us through family and friends and sometimes even enemies. Our willingness to listen to them reflects a willingness to listen to him.

All the way

Sometimes we way overthink guidance. It’s not like there’s this one perfect plan for you, and God is watching to see if you choose well each time, or you’re going to get off course and God can never give you “Plan A” again. Sometimes when we’ve gone through the basic checklist of principles, we just need to follow the advice of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” A more theological perspective would be St. Augustine’s advice: “Love God and do what you please.”

The key is whom you love. Do you want what he wants? Are you looking for his fingerprints? Are you listening to the voices of those around you? Then start moving, as long as it’s something that doesn’t conflict with his clear word in Scripture.

Don’t think the test of whether you followed God’s guidance for a particular decision, however, is how well it worked out. God uses our failures as often – or more often – than our successes. The test is whether I love God more in the next phase of my journey. Is there deeper trust in him, closer intimacy, greater passion for him? Even that doesn’t necessarily come immediately. We might struggle over what’s happened as a result of a poor decision.

Pay far more attention to what’s happening in your heart than how much happier or healthier or wealthier you are as a result of your choice. Develop a bond with the Lord that thrives in the peace that he’s walking with you and working all things together for your ultimate good, that you might be fashioned into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28-29).

Hymn writer Fanny Crosby was blinded by a physician’s decision when she was six weeks old. Yet she parlayed what we could call a tragedy into a life of deep reflection on the truths of the faith-life, and we sing her words regularly. She wrote our closing hymn after a providential provision of a small financial need. As she pondered how God works, she said what we will all declare confidently in the Lord’s presence: “All the way my Savior leads me.” Amen.

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