The story of Isaac and Rebekah is an unusual tale of love and the guidance of God. Many of the details of the story are rather foreign to us today but it was commonplace in the Middle East in the time of Abraham and much of it is true of that area in today.
Our story starts with a mention that Abraham is an old man. Chapter 23 includes the death of his wife Sarah. She dies at 127 years old, making Abraham 137 and Isaac 37. Elsewhere in Genesis we learn that Isaac is 40 years old when he is married so this is a few years after his mother’s death.
1 Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. 2 He said to the chief servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. 3 I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, 4 but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
There are a few interesting details here. First is the fact that Isaac is not married yet. God had promised to bless Abraham and we are told that God upheld His promise and had blessed Abraham in every way. But without a wife, there was not a next generation after Isaac. Forty may sound like an old age for marriage but we don’t know how old Isaac’s wife is. She is likely much younger, perhaps even just a teenager. Genesis 25 tells us that it won’t be until 20 years later that she gives birth. So either she is still young enough to have children or God miraculously allows her to have children at an old age like Sarah.
There are a couple of reasons that Abraham sends his servant on this important task. The most likely is that Abraham is simply too old for such a journey. Beyond that, this is a very important task that the servant is trusted with. Abraham obviously trusts this man and as the head servant he would have shown himself to be completely trustworthy.
The manner in which the servant swears his oath to Abraham is certainly strange to us today. But that is also why it is such a serious oath. Today we reach an agreement with a handshake. We would never place our hand on or under someone else’s thigh. But it is its proximity to the reproductive organ that makes this such a serious oath. Abraham is essentially trusting his future lineage to his servant and his ability to find a wife for his son.
The obvious question is why Isaac couldn’t simply find a wife for himself. Part of it comes down to custom. Only in the last hundred years with the advent of the automobile has dating been a normal thing. Before that marriages were either arranged or were as a result of proximity to other people. If you lived in a small rural town 100 years ago, you only knew a handful of people and the odds were that you didn’t leave the area. Your options for marriage was the girl on the farm down the road or the girl on the other farm up the road.
Abraham’s requirement to return to his homeland and his relatives is also odd to our ears. There’s a joke that goes something like “you might be a redneck if you look for a date at a family reunion.” This is similar but not without reason. Abraham does not want his son to marry one of the foreigners from the land in which they are living. He knows that they worship idols and he doesn’t want his son to be drawn into such a thing. Later on Isaac will be distressed when one of his sons marries someone who is a foreigner.
5 The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?”
6 “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. 7 “The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’-he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. 8 If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” 9 So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.
The servant realizes the difficulty of the task set before him. I’m certain no one here would allow their daughter to just go off with some guy who says he is to bring back a wife for his master. Not even after being showered with gifts and proof that the person is obviously wealthy. Even in the time of Abraham this would have been a daunting task.
Abraham assures his servant that God will be with him however. Abraham completely believes in the promise that God has given him. In order for the promise to be fulfilled Isaac must be married and have children. If his servant is unable to find a wife for Isaac he will be released from his oath.
Abraham makes it clear that Isaac is not to travel to Abraham’s home country. There are two good reasons for this. The first is a matter of safety. A caravan of expensive merchandise was subject to being robbed and Abraham doesn’t want to risk his son.
Perhaps an even greater threat though is the chance that Isaac would go and never return home. Even if Isaac remains safe, Abraham wants him to remain at home rather than travel so far away.
10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and left, taking with him all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water.
12 Then he prayed, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’-let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”
The fact that Abraham even owns camels in this era is proof that he is wealthy. Archaeologists have discovered little evidence of being domesticated at this time but have concluded that only the very wealthy may have owned them.
The request that Abraham’s servant has of God is not a small one. Hospitality was and still is a very important thing in the Middle East. But the request that the servant makes goes well beyond the realm of hospitality. Camels drink a lot of water, as much as ten gallons at a time. Multiply that by ten camels and you have 100 gallons of water. This would be a chore for one person with a bucket and running water today. But in an era when getting water meant lowering a bucket down a well and then slowly pulling that back up, this is an enormous task. Undoubtedly there were other servants traveling with the caravan and they were more than able to draw water for the camel’s.
15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 The girl was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever lain with her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.
17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”
18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink.
19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful.
God has directed the servant to not only the right place and the right family, but directly to the right woman. If I properly followed the genealogy, Rebekah is Isaac’s cousin’s daughter. However, we must account for a huge difference in ages. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born and his brother Nahor was likely much younger than that. Because the son of doesn’t always mean the direct son of but rather a descendant of, there could be more than one generation removed between Isaac and Rebekah. Whatever the case, this is Abraham’s family and God has led the servant here.
22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels. 23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”
24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milcah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”
26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the LORD, 27 saying, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.”
The gold that the servant gives to Rebekah is not meant to impress her but could be considered a tip for watering the camels. The servant gives this to her before inquiring about whether she is from the right family.
When the servant knows that he has found the right family he praises God for his success.
28 The girl ran and told her mother’s household about these things. 29 Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. 30 As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. 31 “Come, you who are blessed by the LORD,” he said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.”
32 So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded. Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him and his men to wash their feet. 33 Then food was set before him, but he said, “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.”
“Then tell us,” Laban said.
Here we meet Laban. He will show up again in a few chapters. This passage gives us a glimpse of his personality though. He sees gold and his eyes kind of bug out. He wants to be in good favor with the person who has tremendous wealth.
The servant goes on to recount the story of how he had been sent to find a wife for Isaac. When asked if Rebekah may return with him to marry Isaac Laban and Bethuel can’t deny the request.
50 Laban and Bethuel answered, “This is from the LORD; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. 51 Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed.”
We don’t know if the family is particularly spiritual or if they worship the same God as Abraham. We know that Laban is an idol worshipper as we discover later on. But even if they don’t know the God of Abraham, they know that this is His doing and know that they can’t argue with God. So they give permission for Rebekah to marry Isaac. She doesn’t get a say in the matter but we’ll see that she does actually get to decide on her own as well.
52 When Abraham’s servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the LORD. 53 Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother. 54 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night there.
When they got up the next morning, he said, “Send me on my way to my master.”
55 But her brother and her mother replied, “Let the girl remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.”
56 But he said to them, “Do not detain me, now that the LORD has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.”
57 Then they said, “Let’s call the girl and ask her about it.” 58 So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”
“I will go,” she said.
It is understandable that the family wants Rebekah to remain a while longer before she leaves them. However it feels a bit more sinister than just this. Laban has seen all of the wealth that the servant has. He may hope that if they detain the servant Isaac will come to them and they will be able to keep the wealth of Abraham and Isaac nearby.
Whatever the true case, Rebekah is given an option and she chooses to go with the servant immediately.
62 Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. 63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. 64 Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 65 and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”
“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.
66 Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
The story ends on a happy note. There is a marriage and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. God has worked to bring these two together. They won’t always have an easy marriage but it is nevertheless God who has guided them and placed them together.