This sermon is based on Genesis chapter 24. Read it here!
What a lively little story and cast of characters! Abraham appears here as the slightly bigoted old dad. Isaac barely appears – showing up just in time to fall in love with the ingenue. Laban is Big Brother from Central Casting. (We’ll hear more about Laban in a few weeks!) Rebekah is a lively young woman who is more than ready to get the heck off the family farm. And then there’s the unnamed servant.
The scene at the well was really popular with artists for a while. A significant meeting, a lovely young woman, a romantic setting, jewels, camels – how could they resist? If you look at some of those paintings, they really look like courtship images. That’s an interesting, kind of strange aspect of this story. The servant is sent as a proxy to find a wife for Isaac – who is a grown man; the verse that follows today’s passage says that he is forty when all this happens!
Why didn’t Abraham send Isaac himself? Maybe it’s because Isaac is overwhelmed with grief for his mother; maybe it’s because Abraham perceives that Isaac would not get the job done. Throughout his chapters in Genesis, Isaac is a fairly passive character. Things mostly happen to him and around him. So Abraham sends a servant instead.
Now, the text doesn’t name the servant, though he’s a tremendously important character for this one chapter. But Jewish tradition names him Eliezar – God is my help. I’ll use that name to make it easier to talk about him, and to give him the dignity he deserves.
So, these images look like courtship. But Eliezar’s interest in Rebekah is not based in romance. It’s based in faith.
When we’re dwelling with stories from the Hebrew Bible, one gift is that there’s also a rich interpretive tradition in Judaism that we can look to. And I found a wonderful reflection, part of the Aleph Beta project to create videos offering meaningful study of Jewish holy texts. I want to show you part of what it helped me notice.
First, I need to introduce a really important word and idea: Chesed. It’s a Hebrew word that may be translated as kindness, mercy, steadfast love, goodness, grace, compassion. An early English Bible translated it as “lovingkindness,” a wonderful word. Chesed is not just being a nice person. It is active, zealous, determined kindness. Chesed is an attribute of God – it is how God feels towards Israel, refusing to abandon them no matter what they do. And Chesed towards other humans is what God demands from God’s people. Love of neighbor manifest as generosity and justice – a foundation for both Jewish and Christian ethics.
The word chesed shows up three times in this passage. Twice in Eliezar’s prayer – he asks God to fulfill his mission in order to show Chesed to his master Abraham. He doesn’t say it in so many words but it’s almost as if he’s reminding God of the covenant – Look, you promised my master descendants as numerous as the stars; that means his son needs a wife. And Eliezar uses the words again when Rebekah fulfills all his hopes – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness towards my master!”
In addition to the word chesed, the attribute of chesed appears in this story as well. Rebekah shows some signs of being a person of chesed. She is generous in sharing her water, even drawing more water for the camels – a significant effort. We don’t know whether her readiness to leave her father and brothers’ household is because she honors God’s intentions or is just really ready for a change of scenery. Why not both? Regardless, she opts in to God’s plan here, to the covenanted people God is building – and she does so partly by showing concern for some thirsty camels.
And Eliezar is unmistakably a person of chesed. He goes above and beyond in his loyalty to both Abraham his master and to God. He puts his task in God’s hands, and blesses God for God’s chesed when God comes through.
But – here’s the thing I didn’t notice until I watched the Aleph Beta video: Eliezar DOESN’T use the word chesed when he’s telling Laban and the rest of Rebekah’s family what happened. We cut that out of the reading to shorten it, but let’s look at it now.
Here’s Eliezar’s prayer: “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer 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.”
Here’s how Eliezar tells about his prayer: “I came today to the spring, and said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’—let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”
Eliezar shifts his language. And the Aleph Beta video suggests Eliezar did that because he noticed some things about Laban, Rebekah’s brother, who seems to be the head of household here. First, he noticed Laban noticing Rebekah’s new jewelry. The text says, “As soon [Laban] he had seen the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and when he heard the words of his sister Rebekah…, he went to the man.”
Second, he might nave noticed something about Laban’s hospitality. Here’s what the NRSV, our Bible translation, does with verses 31 and 32, Eliezar’s arrival:
“Laban said, ‘Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels? So the man came into the house; and Laban unloaded the camels, and gave him straw and fodder for the camels, and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”
In the NRSV, Laban offers hospitality & then actually extends hospitality. But the rabbis behind the Aleph Beta video aren’t so sure.
Here’s how Robert Alter renders this text, a more faithful rendition of the Hebrew:
“And the man came into the house and unharnessed the camels; and he gave bran and feed to the camels and water to bathe his feet and the feet of the men who were wit him. And food was set before him.”
“The man” here is Eliezar – that’s how the Biblical text refers to him.
So Laban offers hospitality – but does he actually follow through and treat Eliezar as an honored guest, or does he leave Eliezar to tend to his own camels and traveling party? Making an assessment that Eliezar is, after all, just the help?
Now, this is ambiguous in the Scriptural text – you can read it either way, but there’s certainly room to wonder. If Laban made a point of his household’s capacity for hospitality, but then didn’t actually act out that hospitality because he assessed that Eliezar wasn’t a person he needed to bother to impress – well, that would be consistent with the bit about the jewelry; and with how Laban acts when Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to him for refuge, many years later. Across those texts, Laban appears as someone who’s primarily motivated by wealth and status.
And – today’s text suggests that Eliezar himself makes exactly that assessment.
Remember how he begins his speech to Laban: “I am Abraham’s servant. The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys.”
Eliezar has sized up Laban and decided that what’s going to persuade him to let Rebekah go is the idea that this might be a really beneficial alliance. So he drops the chesed language, and replaces it with talk about wealth and success. Laban isn’t interested in whether Rebekah is the wife God’s lovingkindness has intended for Isaac. Laban is interested in whether his prospective son-in-law is rich.
So what is the Spirit saying to the churches in this story? Well, she might be saying something else to you, and I’d be interested to hear about that. What I notice is that I feel both tickled and inspired by Eliezar.
Eliezar reminds me of something Jesus said to his disciples, a couple of chapters ago in Matthew’s Gospel: Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Eliezar’s innocence, his goodness and integrity, lie in the fact that he’s person of chesed. A person who lives by lovingkindness, in response to God’s lovingkindness. But he’s savvy like a serpent in the way he susses out Laban and figures out the best way to close this deal. He frames the situation in a way that will help this stakeholder get on board – a core principal for any kind of coalition-building. And, listen, this matters: He doesn’t lie to Laban. There’s nothing fundamentally false about the way he adapts his message. He’s just strategic – and effective – in using Laban’s values to get Laban on board.
Today’s Gospel contains a favorite verse of mine: Jesus says, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” It’s a little cryptic, but for me it speaks – maybe especially this year – to the numbness and overwhelm of our times. There’s so much coming at us that we don’t know how to respond to good news or bad – to dance tunes or dirges. It rings especially poignantly for me on the weekend of our biggest national holiday, in a year that features a brutal pandemic, economic recession and widespread civic unrest. So far.
I think we could do worse, living in these times, than take Eliezar for inspiration. May we share his savvy in strategic communication across differences of values and goals – while striving always to live as people of courageous lovingkindness, in response to God’s chesed and as co-conspirators in God’s great and ongoing work of redeeming the world.
The video that got me thinking: