Sarah has been dead for three years and Isaac is 40 years old. Abraham, thinking of his descendants and his own mortality, decides it is time to find Isaac a wife. He does not want Isaac to marry a woman from Canaan so he sends his servant back to his homeland to find a wife from his kinsmen. The servant makes the long journey back and God orchestrates events such that His guidance and providence are evident. God told Abraham He would bless him and make a great nation of him. The story of Isaac and Rebekah shows God working to fulfill both promises.
The text does not say it here, but in 25:19 we will find out that Isaac is 40 as this story takes place. That means it has been three years since Sarah died. Abraham is old – the adjective used for him more than any other in Genesis – and God has blessed him in every way (including with longevity) and he decides it is time for Isaac to marry. Nothing is said as to why Isaac has not married to this point or if he is considered older than what is typical for a single man.
Abraham calls his chief servant and gives him a task and asks him to make an oath. The servant must swear by the Lord that he will not allow Isaac to marry a woman from Canaan. Abraham gives no explanation for this but it likely has to do with ethnic purity. He may not want Isaac to intermarry with the people that will eventually be driven from the land. Abraham knows God has promised the land to his descendants, so he wants to make sure his descendants do not become intermingled with the Canaanites. At this point there is no law against intermarriage, so it is not a matter of abiding by God’s command or by keeping his descendants from other gods (after all, his family back in Haran where he is about to send his servant is not made up of God-worshipers). He simply wants his descendants to remain separate from the Canaanites.
As part of the oath, Abraham asks the servant to do something that to our western minds seems extremely odd and uncomfortable to picture. He asks the servant to place his hand under Abraham’s thigh. As is typical, no explanation for this is in the text. It will be repeated when Jacob asks Joseph to swear to take his bones back to Canaan from Egypt (47:29), so apparently it is not unheard of (at least in the family of Abraham). And it is interesting that the servant apparently does not balk at doing it (although he presumably has no choice). Amazingly, it could be that the text is actually using a euphemism for something that is even more awkward to contemplate. “Under my thigh” might actually mean “put your hand on my genitals.” In other places in Genesis the same Hebrew word translated “thigh” here is translated “loins” (Gen 46:26, Ex 1:5). That means this is one serious oath.
The purpose behind Abraham asking this of the servant is not clear. It could be that since the oath has to do with Abraham’s descendants, he wants the servant to swear by what makes those descendants possible. It also could have to do with circumcision. Perhaps because circumcision is the sign of the covenant, the servant swears by Abraham’s personal sign. It also could be a way to show submission to authority (something to consider is the commonalities behind this oath and what Jacob will ask of Joseph – in both cases the man asking for the oath is near the end of his life and wants to make sure that something is done even if his life is over – both also have to do with family issues and making a home in Canaan). Regardless of the meaning, it likely has a profound impact on the servant.
Instead of taking a wife from Canaan, Abraham wants the servant to travel back to his homeland (not Ur, but where his family is now – Haran [Mesopotamia]) and find a wife from among Abraham’s family. Abraham married a kinsman and he wants Isaac to do the same.
The servant asks what to do if the woman he finds is not willing to come back. Should he then take Isaac to Haran? Abraham emphatically tells him that under no conditions should Isaac go back. Canaan is the land of promise, and Isaac must stay here to fulfill the covenant. If the woman will not come back then the servant is released from his oath. However, the same God who called Abraham to Canaan will go before the servant and give him success. “He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there.”
At this point in Abraham’s life he has seen God so clearly work in so many ways that he has no doubt God will provide for Isaac. The servant will be released from his oath if he can’t find a woman to accompany him back to Canaan, but it’s really a moot point because God has been faithful, He is faithful, and He will continue to be faithful here. The servant will find a wife for Isaac because God will ensure it. God wouldn’t have promised Abraham to give Canaan to his descendants if He didn’t plan on providing a wife for Isaac. Abraham’s faith is clearly on display in his words to his servant.
The servant packs up a large load of expensive gifts and takes ten camels and some other servants and heads out to Mesopotamia. The trip is roughly 500 miles and probably takes around a month.
He comes to his destination around evening time when women go out to draw water. He has his caravan stop by the well just outside the city and prays. He prays that God will show him what woman is to be Isaac’s wife. He prays specifically that God identify the woman by having her answer his request for a drink with, “Drink, and I will water your camels also.” We will later find out that he utters this prayer silently (45).
Before he is even done praying (God answers his prayer before he even utters it – the timing is such that she likely has to head for the well before the servant prays – “…for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” – Matt 6:8), a woman comes out with a jar on her shoulder (she is probably in a group of women as that would be customary for protection – the text describes only her perhaps because she is the one the servant notices). The servant sees that she is very beautiful (interesting to consider what the servant would have done if the first woman coming out of the city was “very homely”) and he watches her go down to the well and fill her jar and start to come back.
The servant runs to her (numerous people in this story run – there is a sense of urgency to the whole event) and asks her for a drink. The woman – whose name is Rebekah – replies to him, “Drink, my lord.” After he drinks, she says, “I will draw also for your camels until they have finished drinking.” She then goes back and forth to the well and fills the trough for his camels to drink. [Something to consider: he has TEN camels. Her jar likely holds around three gallons (8 lbs per gallon plus the weight of the jar). A camel that has gone without water for several days can drink up to 25 gallons. There is no way to know how thirsty the camels are, but her offer to water all the camels until they are finished drinking is an amazing act of hospitality.]
When she finishes watering the camels, the servant gives her gifts. He gives her a gold ring (later identified as a nose ring – 47), and two gold bracelets. He then asks her who she is (it is interesting that he gives the gifts before asking her identity – he assumes she is the woman God has chosen but he does not know yet if she is a part of Abraham’s family as he has been commanded to find). She tells him that she is the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor. Milcah was the wife of Nahor, the brother of Abraham (she identifies her father as the “son of Milcah” instead of simply the son of Nahor because Nahor had sons by two different women – 22:20-24). The servant now knows he has found the right woman (although notice that she has not told him her name and he hasn’t asked for it). She offered him water and she is of the family of Abraham. God has guided him just as Abraham said He would. She also tells the servant there is plenty of room at her house for his camels and men and there is plenty of straw and feed. She apparently has a large house to make this claim for so large a retinue.
The servant bows down and worships God (presumably as Rebekah watches) and thanks God for His blessing on his master Abraham (Rebekah hears this name for the first time) and for guiding the servant to the right family.
While the servant stays by the well, Rebekah runs (second instance of running) back to her house and tells her family about him. She perhaps mentions that he is the servant of Abraham – which likely causes quite a stir after 65 years – but she also shows them the gifts the man gave her. This piques the interest of her brother – Laban – and Laban runs (third instance of running) out to meet the servant (this is the first mention of Laban in Genesis and it is very appropriate – we will later find out that Laban likes his money – if there were a musical score accompanying the reading of Genesis it would change to something ominous when Laban appears).
Laban greets the servant with interesting words. He says, “Come in, blessed of Yahweh! Why do you stand outside since I have prepared the house, and a place for the camels?” First thing to notice is how eager Laban is to have a rich houseguest (when did he have time to prepare the house for the man and his camels?). The second thing to notice is that he calls the servant “blessed of Yahweh.” Laban is likely a polytheist (see Josh 24:2 and Gen 31:19,29), so this greeting may come out of what Rebekah heard the servant pray. Perhaps she told her brother what she heard and Laban greets the servant using the name of his God.
The servant enters the house and Laban provides for his camels and men (something to note throughout the story is the absence of any activity by Bethuel – Rebekah’s father – it could be that he is old and infirm and therefore not involved in the day to day events of the family). Laban and his family also provide a meal for the servant and his men.
When the meal is placed before Abraham’s servant, he says that he cannot eat until he has explained the reason for his visit (this has to make everyone around the table happy – sit and watch the food get cold while the servant reiterates a story that takes 16 verses). Throughout the story the servant shows that he is doggedly committed to his task and urgently wants to complete it to please Abraham and be faithful to God.
He begins by telling the family about Abraham’s great wealth (picture Laban’s eyes sparkling as he listens) and how Sarah bore a son to Abraham in his old age (interesting to consider the reaction of the family to hearing a new name for Abraham – no longer called ‘Abram’ – and hearing that barren Sarah – no longer ‘Sarai’ – finally bore a child [Sarai was a contemporary of Bethuel’s mother and Rebekah’s grandmother, but it makes sense that they all know who Abraham and Sarah are and know something of their story]). He then rehearses for them the story of the oath – without mentioning the thigh incident – and how he traveled to their city and prayed, and then met Rebekah. Throughout the story he mentions Yahweh six times.
Something not to miss in the servant’s story. He talks about Abraham and talks about his mission and how God directed him, but he says nothing about Isaac. He doesn’t describe him, tell about his character, discuss what he does for Abraham, talk about his life to this point, or anything at all. He doesn’t even tell them his name. The only mention of Isaac is that he was born to Abraham in his old age, and – perhaps most importantly – that he is Abraham’s sole heir (36). The servant wants the family to give Rebekah to him for Isaac, but what Isaac is like is apparently not germane to their decision at all.
He ends his story with the big question. They know he wants to take Rebekah back to Canaan to marry the son of Abraham. So he ends with, “So now if you are going to deal kindly and truly with my master (note that he says they will deal kindly with Abraham, not him), tell me; and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.”
This is a part of the story that is really hard to digest for the western mind. “Hi, I’m the servant of a relative of yours you haven’t seen in 65 years who lives 500 miles away. You just met me within the last hour. Is it OK if I take your daughter back with me to marry a man neither you nor your daughter have ever met and she lives with him for the rest of her life and you never see her again? Please make up your mind right now based on the conversation we just had over dinner.” That’s what he’s asking them. And apparently no one thinks it’s too odd a request to consider.
Laban and Bethuel (first time he’s entered the picture) reply to the servant and say that this matter is clearly from Yahweh (since the servant mentioned the name so much in his story they acknowledge that events are from Abraham’s God). Therefore, they will not stand in the way and the servant can take Rebekah back with him. “Take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son (whatever his name is), as the Lord has spoken.”
After they give the servant their blessing, he brings out gifts for all the family. He essentially gives the family a dowry for Rebekah. He also gives more gifts to Rebekah and then gives precious things to Laban and Rebekah’s mother. Laban has to like the servant more and more and probably wishes he had another sister to send back too (he will get his chance later with his two daughters).
The servant spends the night and the next morning asks Laban to let him leave immediately with Rebekah for Canaan. Laban and Rebekah’s mother ask him to wait ten days so they have more time before saying goodbye (and possibly to check him out a little longer). The servant tells them he urgently wants to get back to Canaan and wants to leave today. He sees his mission as being divinely blessed and doesn’t want to delay his obedience (slow obedience is no obedience).
The family calls for Rebekah and asks her if she is willing to leave immediately with the servant (note that the decision to let her go has already been made without her input – they do not ask her if she is willing to go generally, they ask if she’s willing to go right away). Rebekah – amazingly – says that she is willing to leave with the servant. She is the new Abraham. She doesn’t really understand where she’s going or what will happen when she gets there, but she steps out in faith the same way Abraham did 65 years earlier. So Rebekah, her nurse (named Deborah – 35:8) and her maids (the presence of several maids and the fact that her family could accommodate the servant’s 10 camels and men probably means that Bethuel is prosperous also) mount the camels and follow the servant back to Canaan.
As Rebekah leaves, her family blesses her by saying, “May you, our sister, become thousands of ten thousands, and may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them.” Interestingly, this blessing is very similar to the blessing God gave Abraham after he almost sacrificed Isaac (22:16-18).
The caravan heads back to Canaan and comes to where Isaac is. The text is not entirely clear, but it appears that Isaac has just returned from Beer-lahai-roi (the well – located southwest of Canaan – where God appeared to pregnant Hagar when she fled from Sarah – 16:7-14) and has been living in the Negev (southern part of Canaan). Either the servant travels to the Negev or Isaac has just returned from there and is presumably with Abraham possibly in Heron (we don’t know if Isaac lives on his own or with Abraham – he is apparently with Abraham now as he will use Sarah’s tent with Rebekah). Regardless of where he is, Isaac goes out to walk (meditate) in the field just as the servant’s caravan comes into view. When Rebekah sees Isaac, she asks the servant who he is. The servant replies that the man is his master (not once throughout the whole story does he use Isaac’s name). It is Isaac, the man she is to marry. When she hears who it is she puts on a veil as is proper for a betrothed woman.
The servant goes to Isaac and tells him all that has happened. It is interesting to consider that the one person who has not been involved at all throughout this story is Isaac. Nothing is even said about him being aware of what is going on. It would probably make sense that Abraham told him about the servant’s mission, but nothing is recorded in the text about his input or knowledge at all.
There is no way to know how much time elapses between verses 66 and 67. The text reads like Isaac hears the story and goes to Rebekah and immediately takes her into a tent and consummates the marriage. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case for the text to read as it does. Nothing about a feast or ceremony is important to the story so it’s not hard to imagine the author leaving it out. However, it is also possible – based on how the rest of the story has gone – that he does in fact immediately start the marriage. That he takes her into Sarah’s tent – presumably unused for the last three years – shows that she is the new mistress of the family.
Two things to notice about the end of the story. One is that Isaac loves Rebekah. He had no say in choosing her and was given no other woman as an option, but he loves her just the same. The second thing to notice is that his marriage comforts him after his mother’s death. He may be 40 years old and it may have been three years since Sarah’s death, but he apparently still mourns her passing and sees Rebekah as another woman he can love.
What Is the Point of this Long Story?
- It shows another step toward God fulfilling His promise to make a great nation of Abraham. Isaac’s birth was the first step. His marriage is now the second. The foundation is laid for the great nation God promised. Something to consider, however, is that Abraham is 140 years old and Isaac is 40. And Isaac’s new wife – Rebekah – will be barren through the first 20 years of their marriage and will then give birth to only two sons (and only one in the line of promise). God fulfills His promises to Abraham but He continues to do so according to His own mysterious timing and ways.
- It is another example of God sovereignly orchestrating events to bless Abraham. Think through all the things that God ensures:
- The servant reaches the city just at the time when women come to the well.
- The first woman he notices is a member of Abraham’s family.
- Rebekah leaves for the well just as or before the servant prays for a sign.
- Rebekah responds to the servant just as he asked in his prayer. She even willingly waters all of his camels – just as he asked.
- Laban and Rebekah’s parents willingly accede to the servant’s request even though they don’t know the servant at all. They simply take him at his word and acknowledge that his mission is from God (who they likely do not worship).
- Rebekah willingly leaves her family and goes with the servant the day after she meets him without knowing anything about Isaac at all.
- God provides safety for a 1000 mile round trip that likely takes 2 months.
- Isaac goes out to walk in the field just as the caravan – which has been traveling for a month – comes into view.
- Isaac loves Rebekah.
If you traveled with the servant and observed all that happened in this story, nothing you witnessed would have seemed miraculous. The servant didn’t cross a river on dry land or have a star that led him to Rebekah. Other than his answered prayer, everything that happened involved ordinary people doing ordinary things. Yet throughout the whole event God orchestrated events such that His perfect will was accomplished.
Orchestrating the ordinary is typically how God works. It is rare that He miraculously acts to achieve His will (they aren’t miracles if they’re common). That is why this chapter is valuable. It shows God sovereignly working in day-to-day circumstances and the lives of normal people to accomplish His plan. For most of us, it registers with what we see in our own lives today. Not many of us have mountaintop experiences or notice God clearly working His will in the circumstances of our lives. We oftentimes see His works more clearly in the rearview mirror rather than through the windshield. Yet this chapter teaches us that whether we notice Him or not, He works in our lives – our very ordinary lives – to ensure His will is done and often does it in ways that aren’t immediately visible. We serve an omnipotent and awesome God but One who is also very much the God of the ordinary. For an ordinary person with a fairly typical life, this chapter becomes hugely encouraging.