Proper 9, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 6, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2:Reading 3:Reading 4:Alternate Reading 2:
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67Psalm 45:10-17Romans 7:15-25aMatthew 11:16-19, 25-30Song of Solomon 2:8-13

By Marti J. Steussy

Genesis 24 was likely written more than 1400 years after Abraham’s time (in which camels weren’t yet domesticated). In it, Isaac has even less say than Rebekah about their arranged marriage (we see her consent asked, but not his). Abraham’s aged servant (the one once slated to inherit the estate, 15:2-3 / 24:2-3?) shows little enthusiasm when told to go to the old country to find a wife for Isaac. Perhaps to avoid issue, he asks for a very unlikely sign (24:12-14). He has ten camels; after a long journey a camel can drink more than fifty gallons of water. What girl would volunteer (or have the strength) to draw 500 gallons of water for a stranger?

Before the prayer ends, Rebekah arrives. We know, although the servant does not, that she has the bloodlines Abraham wants. She’s beautiful, and she not only volunteers to water the camels but does it “quickly,” running (24:18-20). Her hospitality reminds some of Abraham’s in Gen 18:1-8, but only when Rebekah reveals her family credentials does the servant admit God’s leading (24:26-27).

Rebekah now runs to her brother Laban, who offers housing and food for the servant, the servant’s servants, and the tired, hungry, camels. The servant recaps his journey, emphasizing LORD’s guidance (24:34, 40, 42, 48; compare 24:1, 7, 12-14, 26-27), but after presenting the bride-gift and feasting for an evening, he tests (or tries to foil) the match one last time by insisting on immediate departure. The startled family consults Rebekah, who answers with a characteristically active “I will.” Her family’s farewell blessing echoes bits of 22:16-18.

Rebekah and her maids get on the camels themselves to follow the servant (24:61). We see their journey’s end through both Isaac’s eyes (24:63, in Hebrew, “he raised his eyes, and saw—look! Camels coming!”) and Rebekah’s (24:64, “Rebekah raised her eyes, and saw—Isaac!”). NRSV’s “slipped quickly” translates a verb usually rendered “fall.” While it’s amusing to imagine Rebekah so smitten that she falls off her mount, the ancient Greek suggests that she vaulted off, landing on her feet. The closing verses suggest a strong motherly role for Rebekah in her marriage to Isaac.

As a story about in-group marriage, Gen 24 gives opportunity to explore our anxieties about our children’s matches and the difficulties and opportunities posed by unconventional marriages. If you go this direction, mention the affirmation of Hagar and her child in Gen 21 (two weeks ago), and biblical marriages to such foreign women as Keturah, Tamar, Zipporah, and Ruth (Gen 25:1; 38:1-30; Ex 2:21; Ruth; Mt 1:3, 5).

Gen 24 is also a story about providence, but I don’t think the storyteller wants us to demand extravagant signs from God on a regular basis. Rather than encouraging people to lay fleeces (Jdg 6:37-40), you might highlight the servant’s apparent reluctance and talk about the ways in which God sometimes lures us into doing the right thing despite our foot-dragging.

What I like best in this chapter, however, are the very human ways in which God’s plans are worked out. The servant seems reluctant, Laban seems greedy, the men like to feast, Rebekah’s brother and mother are distressed at her departure, Isaac seems more lonely for his mother than eager for a wife, but it all works out. Rebekah herself is a dynamo: quick-moving, assertive, and ready for adventure. And in that grace which sometimes sweetens our human fumbling, Rebekah is so impressed by Isaac that she leaps off her camel before she discovers that he is her betrothed!

I recommend Song of Solomon 2:8-13 as a companion for Gen 24. The bride of Ps 45:10-17 is mostly an accessory to her royal groom, and the psalm’s closing words of blessing/promise are addressed to him rather than, as in Gen 24:60, the bride. By contrast, the Song (which is neither by nor about Solomon) features an active and assertive young woman (3:1-4), a more rural setting, and a romantic rather than political relationship. The biggest disconnect is that in 2:8-9 the boy bounds like a gazelle, while in Gen 24 Rebekah does the running!

Matt 11:16-19, 25-30 supports the idea that God sometimes reaches us in ordinary and even delightful ways. Jesus starts by mocking those who cannot see where God is working: they reject his ministry because he celebrates and hangs out with the wrong people, but say that John “has a demon” because he does not celebrate! The reading presents Jesus as an incarnation of Sophia (Wisdom, see Prov 8-9) not only in 11:19 but in 29-30, where Jesus does a “shout out” to Sir 6:30 and 51:26, verses that ask us to wear Wisdom’s golden yoke.

Biblical wisdom traditions are generally open to learning from all sources, not just special revelation (notice how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes appeal to observation as a source of knowledge). It’s seeing Jesus as Sophia that justifies the claims about him in Mt 11:25-27. Rather than using these verses to claim a unique Christian access to truth, we might emphasize that God’s wisdom is more accessible to “infants” than “the intelligent.” Those whom the world counts wise still need to listen to others.

Romans 7 continues Paul’s reflection on the conflicting “force fields” of sin and righteousness (see last week’s commentary). His association of sin with “flesh” reinforces an unfortunate dualism. Some of our worst sins involve mental desires for control and prestige that override physically based feelings of compassion! What we can affirm is the idea in Paul and rabbinic tradition that we have impulses towards both good and evil. Even when we know what is right, we often find ourselves not doing it. In itself this lection does not move forward to the good news, which is that experiencing God’s generous love can free us to do what our own will power cannot. But the lection does remind us how futile it can be to berate ourselves and others about what “ought” to be done. They, and we, know what we should do, but we need God’s spirit—not threats—to enable us to do it.

Marti J. Steussy is MacAllister-Petticrew Professor of Biblical Interpretation Emerita at Christian Theological Seminary and an active member of the Network of Biblical Storytellers and its seminar.