The Fifth Sunday after Trinity – 9th July 2023
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-end
Psalm 45 vs 10-end
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On first reading we might think that today’s Old Testament reading is the stuff of feminists’ nightmares! It is the story of an arranged marriage between cousins – cousin marriage was and is still in some cultures considered desirable as a way of preventing the fragmentation of family property. It is the old man Abraham who initiates this scheme; the romantic process of dating that we are used to in our culture doesn’t come into it, and from our perspective the wooing of Rebekah by Abraham’s servant feels more-or-less transactional: it’s hard to escape the impression that Rebekah and her family are impressed chiefly by the servant’s expensive gifts. Of Isaac, the intended groom, they know nothing beyond this indication of his wealth, and of course the family relationship.
The many centuries of interpretation of this passage, as with the bible in general, have of course been dominated by men. And naturally enough men tend to read scripture from a male point-of-view. And so the stories that we find in the book of Genesis are often called the stories of the Patriarchs, focussed on Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons. The various radical movements that emerged since the eighteenth century ironically reinforced this school of interpretation: opposing themselves to traditional religion and all that it stood for, these stories were often dismissed as just so much patriarchy, misogyny and superstition. And so radicals since the time of the French Revolution have said: “Best just chuck the whole thing out”.
But there are those who take what to me seems to be a much more interesting approach, and so there are nowadays biblical scholars – both Christian and Jewish – who have worked to re-evaluate these ancient stories, paying more careful attention to the role of women. And the results of some of these studies are very interesting.
The version of the story we have heard this morning is heavily edited, so as to fit into the tight timescales and short attention spans that shape the modern church service. If you are that way inclined, you might consider reading the whole of Genesis 24. It is a lovely story, beautifully told, and it stands up on its own almost like a short story or novella.
You might notice the total passivity of Isaac in this story. Although the narrative concerns him in the most intimate way, he only appears at the very end. This is a feature of Isaac in general. Of the Old Testament patriarchs, he is the one we hear least about, and in all the stories concerning Isaac, he is a passive rather than an active figure.
You might also notice that Rebekah, by contrast, is an active figure. The test of the servant is astute – he asks God to help him find the right girl through a test that indicates kindness and generosity. But it is not only kindness and generosity: it is also what we might call gumption. Rebekah notices the camels, she recognises that they belong to Abraham’s servant, she considers that they might need water too, and she doesn’t wait to be asked, but rather offers of her own volition to water the animals as well as the servant.
You might notice too the frequency of action words used in connection with Rebekah. She is described as “quickly” lowering her jar, “quickly” emptying her jar, “running” back to the well to draw for the camels, “running” to her mother’s household.
And that’s also an interesting phrase. Rebekah’s home is identified in the text as her “mother’s household”. Some scholars have noticed the minimal role played by Rebekah’s father Bethuel in this story. He is alive – we know this because he makes a brief appearance in the full account – but the family home is nevertheless associated primarily with Rebekah’s mother. Similarly, at the end of the story, Isaac is described as taking Rebekah to his mother’s tent. Sarah of course is dead; but her name still identifies the tent that is Isaac’s home.
And so we see that these ancient stories, so often termed the stories of the Patriarchs, are in fact more complex than many interpreters have recognised, and in places we catch glimpses of matriarchal agency and power that will continue to be important in the case of Rebekah, as we will see as the story unfolds.
Christian interpretation of the Old Testament has traditionally been especially interested in the ways in which the stories, prophecies and wisdom traditions of these ancient texts point towards Jesus. The story of Rebekah is particularly interesting in this context, as we are likely immediately reminded of the way in which strong female characters are important in the gospels, and Jesus Himself is often found in the company of women. Rebekah and Abraham’s servant at the well may remind us of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: like Abraham’s servant, Jesus asks the woman for a drink; the Samaritan woman demands a good deal more explanation than Rebekah, and yet she grasps the significance of Jesus more quickly than the male disciples who have been with Him from the start of His ministry.
Looking at in a different way, we may see parallels too between Rebekah and the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Genesis narrative, God’s promise to Abraham is in the balance as the servant asks Rebekah for water; her answer safeguards the promise that Abraham will be a father of nations, and that through Abraham all nations will be blessed. Similarly, in Luke’s gospel, God’s promises of redemption and blessing, in fact the whole of God’s loving purposes for all creation, all this hinges on Mary’s answer to the angel; the angel who comes to her not with gifts of gold jewellery, but rather announcing the coming of the most precious gift of all, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.