4. A Lasting Legacy: Choosing A Wife For Isaac (Gen. 24:1-67)Related Media
One of the most important decisions anyone ever makes in life, aside from choosing to trust Christ as our Savior, is the lifetime commitment to a spouse. People today use all kinds of different methods for finding a spouse. Some use online dating services. Others meet their spouses at church or at work or some type of social gathering.
It’s one thing to meet someone who might become your spouse, but quite another thing to actually choose that person to be your spouse. What criteria do you use? How do you compare the person to your criteria? How do you know if what you see is what you will get? Some people are quite clinical about their criteria for an ideal spouse, their evaluation of a potential spouse, and their final commitment to a spouse. In his book, “Abraham, The Lord Will Provide,” Ed Dobson cites an advertisement that appeared in a major metropolitan newspaper:
“Christian, blond, blue eyes, 5’ 2”, 100 pounds, professional female, no dependents, wishes to meet Protestant Christian, professional man in 30’s with a college degree who has compassion for animals and people, loves nature, exercise and physical fitness (no team sports), music, church, and home life. Desires non-smoker, non-drinker, slender 5’7” to 6’, lots of head hair, intelligent, honest, trustworthy, sense of humor, excellent communicator of feelings, very sensitive, gentle, affectionate, giving, encouraging and helpful to others, no temper or ego problems, secure within and financially, health conscious, neat and clean, extremely considerate and dependable. I believe in old-fashioned moral values. If you do and are interested in a possible Christian commitment, write to the following box. Please include recent color photo and address.”
Whether this advertisement produced a spouse who could live up to all those requirements I don’t know. But it illustrates just how complicated and stressful finding a spouse can be. No wonder so many young people today are nervous about making a commitment in marriage. It is not only a daunting task in itself, but they are surrounded by a society that takes marriage vows lightly, pursues divorce readily, and gives seemingly little consideration to the effect all this has on themselves (spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and financially) and on their children, if they have any. As a result we are seeing many young people who, seemingly, aren’t much interested in getting married and so many marriage and family break-ups.
We are continuing our study of the series: “Abraham, his faith and failures.” In this expository sermon, our biblical passage is Genesis 24:1-67, in which Abraham initiates the search for, and is successful in securing, a wife for Isaac, the son that God promised him in his old age. This account gives us many principles for navigating the difficult terrain of decision-making - discerning and acting on the will of God – in any circumstance but here specifically as it relates to finding, identifying, and marrying the spouse of God’s choosing. The first principle we learn is that…
I. When You Make Decisions, Exercise Spiritual Discernment (24:1-4)
“Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.’” (24:1-4).
If you have read my previous article on Abraham (Gen. 21:8-21), you will remember that my comments on Genesis 21:21 relate to what we are about to study in chapter 24. Abraham had been called by God out of Ur of the Chaldeans (Mesopotamia) to the land of Canaan, the country which God promised to him and his descendants. Abraham was a god-fearing man but, under pressure from his wife to produce a son and heir, entered into an illicit sexual relationship with his wife’s maid, Hagar. Thus he not only entered into a relationship that was contrary to God’s moral principles for marriage (i.e. the exclusive and monogamous union of one man and one woman for life), but he showed reckless disregard for any spiritual or cultural discernment. By contrast, when Hagar chose a wife for her son, Ishmael, she chose an Egyptian (Gen. 21:21). In so doing, she demonstrated a far greater spiritual and cultural discernment than that of Abraham and Sarah. Hagar selected a wife for her son from her own people, someone of the same race and religion.
It seems that by the time of our passage (Gen. 24), Abraham has learned from that prior experience, because now, when he authorizes his servant to search for a wife for Isaac, he gives the servant explicit instructions to not take a wife for his son, Isaac, from the daughters of the Canaanites (the foreign people among whom they lived), but to go to Abraham’s birth country and family to find a wife for Isaac. Evidently, Abraham now knew by sad experience that if Isaac married a pagan Canaanite woman they would be spiritually, morally, and culturally incompatible. He saw what was going on around him amongst the Canaanite women, their worldly lifestyles and pagan ideas with no respect for, understanding of, or relationship with the God of Abraham, the one true living God.
Abraham had learned the principle that your spouse must be spiritually compatible with you. The first and most basic application of this principle is that, if you are a Christian, you must marry another Christian. Don’t even think about pursuing a relationship with a non-Christian – it will only lead to unhappiness or complete disaster. Inevitably, when a Christian marries a non-Christian, the non-Christian influence eventually draws the Christian away from the Lord. It’s a basic principle that water always finds its own level.
And, by the way, this principle applies to other “unions” as well, like business partnerships. A business partnership effectively unites you with someone else whose moral and spiritual commitments will impact you over and over again – their integrity, their sexual morality, their marriage etc. They are not submissive to the principles and authority of Scripture. The old axiom is true: oil and water do not mix. Or, to cite the apostle Paul,
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2 Cor. 6:14).
The second basic application of this principle is to make sure that you are compatible as to your spiritual convictions. Even if your potential spouse is a Christian does not mean that you will be compatible with them on matters of spiritual convictions about Scriptural truths, Biblical interpretation, denominational affiliation, and practical Christian living. If you have radically different positions on these matters, you need to clear these up before you marry this person. Disagreements of this type can cause major disharmony in the marriage relationship and in how you bring up your children. As Ed Dobson puts it: “Building a healthy marriage means total agreement on the absolutes, understanding on the convictions, and tolerance on the preferences” (Abraham: The Lord Will Provide, 170).
So important is this principle of decision-making in the selection of a marriage partner that Abraham made his servant enter into a binding covenant with him to obey this instruction by placing his hand under his thigh and swearing “by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth” (24:3a). This was not something to be taken lightly. Abraham’s word was crystal clear. His servant must not under any circumstances “take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (24:3b-4).
So, this leaves the question hanging in the air: If Abraham forbade Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman, then where could he find a suitable and compatible wife? The answer was in Mesopotamia, Abraham’s birth country where some of his family still lived. Evidently, Abraham was confident that there was a woman there who would be suitable for Isaac. More specifically, he had confidence that a suitable woman within his own family would be found. We aren’t told why Abraham had this conviction, but perhaps his own testimony to them when he obeyed God selflessly and took that long journey to Canaan had convinced them to also believe in and worship Abraham’s God. So that’s where he instructs his servant to go on this mission to find a bride for Isaac.
So, the first principle we learn is that when you make decisions, exercise spiritual discernment. Second…
II. When You Make Decisions, Don’t Disobey God To Achieve Your Own Purposes (24:5-9)
The servant has a “what if” question.
“The servant said to him, ‘Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?’” (24:5).
In other words, what if I find someone, but she refuses to come with me to Canaan? What then? Should I take your son to Mesopotamia to try to find someone himself.
“Abraham said to him, ‘See to it that you do not take my son back there. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.’ So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.” (24:6-9).
Three things Abraham was convinced and adamant about. First, that Isaac marry someone of the same spiritual and cultural heritage as Abraham himself. Second, that if the woman that the servant chose was not willing to make the trek from Mesopotamia to Canaan, under no circumstances was the servant to take Isaac to Mesopotamia. Abraham would be true to God above all else. God had led him from Mesopotamia to Canaan and no one was authorized to reverse that. Under no circumstance would Abraham doubt what God had promised (Gen. 12:1-3) or contradict what God had done in leading him to Canaan. There was to be no going back to Mesopotamia. Third, Abraham was convinced that God would not fail him now or change His mind. The servant need not worry about this potential failure to bring back a wife for Isaac. No, the God who brought him from there to Canaan and who promised this land to him and his descendants would “send his angel before you.” His confidence was fully and solely in God!
That finalized the matter. If in the unlikely event that the servant did not find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s family in Mesopotamia, then Abraham loosed the servant from the oath he had taken, but “you must not take my son back there.”
So, the first principle in this passage is that when you make decisions, exercise spiritual discernment. Second, when you make decisions, don’t disobey God to achieve your own purposes. And third…
III. When You Make Decisions, Seek And Trust God’s Direction And Provision (24:10-53)
“Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor. And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water” (24:10-11).
The faithful servant began the long journey northward, through Syria, across the Euphrates river to Mesopotamia. This was by no means a random search but rather a specific task with a specific goal.
Immediately upon arriving at his destination (the city of Nahor), the servant prayed for God’s direction. After all, how was he to know how to go about his search or indeed whom to select? So, he sets his situation plainly before the Lord. “And he said, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham’”(24:12).
The nature of the servant’s prayer is so instructive. First, notice how he addresses God: “Lord, God of my master Abraham.” He acknowledges God as the Lord, the sovereign ruler of the universe, and, specifically, “the God of my master Abraham.” This journey and search were all on behalf of and in the name of Abraham, his master. That’s who he served and he never lost sight of that. Second, notice the direction that he seeks from God:
“ Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master’” (24:13-14).
This is a big “ask,” isn’t it? To expect God to indicate to him whom he should choose to be Isaac’s wife by bringing that specific woman to that specific well at that specific time, who would respond to the servant’s request to provide him a drink and, furthermore, who would voluntarily offer to water his camels also. This was a big and bold prayer.
Estimates vary as to how much water a camel can drink, depending on its environment, thirst level, and exertion. But most estimates seem to range between 20 and 30 gallons. And the servant had ten of them! This would have been a huge commitment by the woman. Surely, such a response by such a diligent, kind, hard-working woman would make a good wife for Isaac.
“ Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, ‘Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.’ She said, ‘Drink, my lord.’ And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, ‘I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.’ So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels” (24:15-20).
Isn’t that amazing? The servant’s prayer was answered before he had finished praying and the answer met and exceeded everything he had asked for (cf. Isa. 65:24). First, Rebekah was a close relative of Abraham, exactly what Abraham had requested. Second, she was “very attractive” and morally pure. Third, she responded to the servant’s request exactly as he had prayed, with no objections or excuses. So, the servant “ gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord had prospered his journey or not” (24:21). Was this the one or should he continue looking? Though the servant was bold in his prayer request, he was by no means presumptuous. He would not get ahead of the Lord. Convinced that this was the one, he offered her a gift for her faithful and willing service to him and his camels (24:22) and inquired of her,
“‘Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?’ She said to him, ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.’ She added, ‘We have plenty of both straw and fodder, and room to spend the night’” (24:23-25).
Now the servant learns about her family. She is the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham’s brother - just the family connection that Abraham had asked for. And, in God’s providence, she evidently trusts the servant sufficiently to offer him accommodation. No wonder that “The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.’ Then the young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things” (24:26-28). Everything is unfolding as Abraham had requested and as the servant had prayed. This is no chance meeting or coincidence. This is of the Lord who is honoring his master’s faith.
Quickly, the servant is received into Rebekah’s household. Her brother, Laban, welcomes the servant and his men into their home where they are extended great hospitality. The camels are fed and housed, and he and his men are provided with water to wash up after their long journey. But when he is offered food, he refuses to eat until he can relay to the household the purpose of his journey, which is his top priority (24:29-33). And so he narrates all that had led him up to that moment (24:34-48), and what a compelling account it is, concluding with a demand for Laban’s (Rebekah’s brother) and Bethuel’s (her father) answer:
“‘Now then, if you are going to show steadfast love and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.” How could they refuse? “Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, ‘The thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken’” (24:49-51).
In response to all that God had done in bringing him safely on this long journey and in answering his prayers more than he could ask or think, once more the servant “bowed himself to the earth before the Lord. And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments” (24:52-53). This was indeed a moment of celebration for all God’s goodness, faithfulness, and provision.
What a lesson this is for us when we make decisions or undertake tasks. In this case, the principle is that when you make decision, seek and trust God’s direction and provision. This principle applies to all facets of the Christian life, doesn’t it? Prayer and trust in God are fundamental to decision-making and living the Christian life in general. We must grasp this truth that God answers prayer.
Here in this story we see how God works in the world. He providentially marks out our way forward, often without any intercession on our part. But God delights to lead us forward by way of prayer and we should delight in this privilege and opportunity. I know that often the answers to our prayers are not as explicit or as timely as in this story, but, nonetheless, the principle remains. Many times, I think, God answers our prayers and we don’t recognize or like the answer. Sometimes God’s answers are clear and detailed. Other times they may not be so obvious to us. Perhaps in those instances God is saying “no” or “wait.”
The fourth principle we learn from this passage is that…
IV. When You Make Decisions, Don’t Be Dissuaded Or Discouraged By Hindrances (24:54-61)
As soon as the servant and his men arose the next morning, they immediately made preparations to leave. Their work there was done. But Rebekah’s “brother and her mother said, ‘Let the young woman remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go’” (24:55). Clearly, they were standing in the way of the servant’s work. You could argue, I suppose, that this was just a natural response by family members, especially Rebekah’s mother who would not want to see her daughter leave for a far off destination. Isn’t that often the case? Family members often hinder people responding to the work of God in their lives – “at least ten days” they said. Notice that they did not say “ten days” but “at least ten days.” This was open-ended and could go on for a long time, maybe even indefinitely.
But the servant was focussed and adamant, saying to them,
“‘Do not delay me, since the Lord has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.’ They said, ‘Let us call the young woman and ask her.’ And they called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will go.’ So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men. And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, ‘Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!’ Then Rebekah and her young women arose and rode on the camels and followed the man. Thus the servant took Rebekah and went his way” (24:56-61).
Rebekah shows unquestioning obedience to the evident will of God. She didn’t hesitate, saying “I will go.”
Neither the servant nor Rebekah herself were discouraged or dissuaded by the hindrances of others. She could have easily said, “Let’s wait for at least ten days before we go. After all, it will be along time until I see my family again.” But neither family ties nor separation by distance would hinder her. She could have asked for a delay in leaving by questioning the servant’s story. How did she know that what he said was true? A delay would give time to check his story out. She might have had a hundred other objections to the servant’s demand to leave right away. But she didn’t. She knew intuitively that he had told the truth and that this was the will of God for her life.
What a lesson for us when confronted with making tough decisions. How good and happy it is when we can clearly see the direction and provision of God and when we voluntarily and unhinderedly say, “I will go.” How many missionaries have had to face this same kind of decision and have willingly and readily responded, “I will go.” How many young women have faced this same challenge in a marriage proposal which would separate them from friends and family. “‘Will you go with this man?’” they ask her. Unhesitatingly she replies: “‘I will go.’”
The final principle from this passage is that…
V. When You Make Decisions, Rejoice In The Prospects Of What God Has Done (24:62-67)
We come to the final scene in this unfolding drama. The servant has done his job. Rebekah has responded appropriately. Isaac is expectantly waiting. “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming” (24:24:63). His heart must surely have gone pitter-patter when he saw the caravan approaching. He must have had a thousand questions at that moment: “Did the servant find him a wife in accordance with his father’s instructions? What does she look like? What kind of personality does she have? Will we be compatible?” Evidently Isaac was looking for their return from the far country. “And behold, the camels were coming.” This was the moment of the big reveal to find out what God had in store for him.
At the same time as Isaac lifted up his eyes and saw the camel caravan approaching, Rebekah too “lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel and said to the servant, ‘Who is that man, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master’” (24:64-65a). I think when she asked the question, “Who is that man?” she must have known in her heart who he was, for even before the servant answered, she had “dismounted from her camel.” And when the servant said, “It is my master,” she “took her veil and covered herself” (24:65b). This is an act of reverence and humility. The one who was found by the servant is bowing before the one who sought her.
“And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done” (24:66). When Isaac heard the servant’s story, he was convinced that this was the woman for him. God had guided and provided through the entire process and without hesitation, “Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (24:67). What a lovely touch. Isaac was “comforted after his mother’s death.” Rebekah was not Sarah but she filled that void as good wives do. He would no longer be alone. Rebekah would be his comfort and companion.
So, there you have five abiding principles for decision-making in the Christian life:
1. When you make decisions, exercise spiritual discernment (24:1-9)
2. When you make decisions, don’t disobey God to achieve your own purposes (24:5-9)
3. When you make decisions, seek and trust God’s direction and provision (24:10-53)
4. When you make decisions, don’t be dissuaded or discouraged by hindrances (24:54-60)
5. When you make decisions, rejoice in the prospects of what God has done (24:62-67)
Of course, the N.T. perspective here is the beautiful illustration of God the Father sending his Servant, the Holy Spirit, into the world to seek and secure a bride for his one and only beloved Son.
Notice that the servant always obeyed Abraham’s will to the letter and never brought attention to or spoke about himself. Everything he did and said was in submission to and in honor of his master. His sole purpose was to carry out the will of his master in seeking a spouse for his master’s son. Thus it is with the Holy Spirit. God sent him into the world to draw sinners to the Savior. And in carrying out his work here, he does not speak of himself. In John’s gospel, Jesus taught his disciples extensively about the Holy Spirit, his nature and function. Concerning the Holy Spirit Jesus said:
1. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn. 16:13)
2. “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn. 14:26)
3. “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me (Jn. 15:26)
4. “When he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8).
Notice that before Rebekah responded to the servant’s invitation to accompany him back to marry Isaac, Isaac himself had already offered himself as a willing sacrifice to God on the Mount of Moriah (Gen. 22). And God had raised him from that place of death to await his bride, who would be found and brought to him by the servant. This is the work of redemption played out in living color here in the O.T. A wonderful illustration of all that God would subsequently do through his beloved Son, whose sacrifice at the cross made atonement for the sins of all who believe, whom the Servant, the Holy Spirit, would draw to the Savior, granting them new life in Christ.
Once Rebekah’s decision was made known, the servant and their entourage set out on the long return journey to Isaac’s home. The servant knew the way and made every provision for Rebekah. She was not left to her own devices nor to worry about how it was all going to work out. No, she was confident and content in the servant’s care and provision. This is how it works in the Christian life too. When you trust Christ as your Savior, the Holy Spirit makes every provision for you. He guides you when you don’t know the way. He encourages you when you feel discouraged. He teaches you when you don’t understand. He comforts you when you feel alone.
All of this we see epitomized and beautifully illustrated in the nature and function of Abraham’s servant. His work is to honor and magnify his master and his master’s son. Thus it is with the Holy Spirit who came to seek out and win over those who become the bride of his Mater’s beloved Son. Some have wondered about how the Holy Spirit carries out his work. How does He convince and draw people to Christ? Not by forcing them. He does not, so to speak, hold a gun to their head. They do not decide to trust Christ out of any outside pressure. Rather, the Holy Spirit opens up their understanding to believe the truth of God’s word about his Son and salvation, such that they willingly believe and obey. This might be the result of hearing the testimony of a Christian friend, or reading a tract or the Bible that someone gives you. It may come about through overhearing a conversation or attending a church service where the gospel is explained. The Holy Spirit takes these ordinary activities and opens up your heart and mind to the truth and draws you to Christ in faith.
What a picture that God has given us so that we can better understand the work of God in redemption, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit in particular, which is illustrated in the work of Abraham’s servant. The message of the servant touched Rebekah’s heart such that when asked if she would go with “this man” she unhesitatingly replied, “I will go” (24:58).