THE BIBLE’S CINDERELLA STORY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 6, 2017; 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 24:1-34, 42-67; Romans 8:26-30

“The man gazed at [Rebekah] in silence to learn whether or not
the Lord had made his journey successful.”
— Genesis 24:21-27

Yes, we’ve all heard the fairy tale of Cinderella. Prince meets girl, prince loses girl — literally, after she deserts him at the stroke of midnight — and then, after a long search, prince finds girl again, at last. Figuring prominently in the fairy tale is that famous glass slipper. Only by locating the one dainty little foot that fits inside the slipper will Prince Charming live happily ever after with his beloved.

The Bible has a Cinderella story. It’s the courtship of Rebekah from Genesis 24. There’s no glass slipper in this tale, but there is a gold nose-ring. When everything’s said and done, against incredible odds, Isaac and Rebekah are united: and through them, God’s covenant with Abraham — that his descendants will be numberless as the stars of the heavens — is enabled to proceed.

*****

There’s a lot of talk these days about recovering biblical family values. “Just get back to the Bible,” people say. “God has a plan for family relationships. All we have to do is follow it.”

If you ever hear someone put it just that way, there’s one thing you can tell about them: they haven’t read their Bible.

If they had, they’d know the Bible describes a bewildering variety of family relationships. Some of them are familiar to us. Others — such as polygamy (one man having many wives) — will land you in jail, at least in our country. Last week we recalled how Abraham had a son by his wife’s slave, Hagar. That surrogate-mother arrangement would be pretty sketchy if it happened today: because Hagar, who was herself the property of Abraham, had nothing to say about it.

Then there’s today’s story: the tale of a courtship that proceeds in a very unusual fashion — at least to our way of thinking.

*****

In the fairy tale, at least Cinderella and Prince Charming get to dance together, however briefly. They’ve seen and talked to each other.

Not in Genesis 24. Isaac and Rebecca never lay eyes on each other until the bargain’s already been struck, the bride price paid, and Rebecca has left the home of her parents, never to return.

It’s an arranged marriage — a strange concept to us in the Western world, who put so much stock in romantic love. But it’s not so strange to a great many people who live in other cultures.

Do you know couples who grew up in India? If you do, and if they came over to this country as married people, chances are their marriage was arranged. The two sets of parents came together, drank some tea, struck a bargain, and only then did they allow their son and daughter to really get to know each other.

Now, you may think that’s a crazy way to get married. Most Americans think exactly that. But do you know something? Experts have done studies of those arranged marriages, and they’re actually no more likely to end in divorce than those that come out of the American way of courtship.

The reality is, in both East and West, success in marriage is not about making the right choice at the time of courtship. It’s about a couple making right choices each day of their life together.

One Indian person had this to say, comparing the two systems: “In America, you take a hot pot off the fire and try to keep it from going cold. Here in India, we put a cold pot onto the fire and wait for it to warm up.”

*****

Another thing that seems strange about this courtship of Isaac and Rebekah is that it happens over a great distance. This is an arranged marriage, yes, but it’s also a courtship by proxy. The initiative comes from Abraham. He thinks it’s high time his son Isaac met a nice girl and settled down to make some babies and start fulfilling that covenant.

Abraham knows right where to find the sort of girl who will make his son happy. He’s quite sure he doesn’t want a daughter-in-law from the local Canaanite people — in the land we now know as Israel. No, he wants to find one from among his own kindred, in Mesopotamia — the land we now know as Iraq.

So, Abraham calls in his most senior servant — the man he trusts to manage his entire household — and dispatches him, with a caravan of ten camels and all their handlers, to make the long journey back to his homeland.

“What if I can’t find a bride for your son?” he asks. “Wouldn’t it make more sense for Isaac to travel with me, so the fair young lasses of Mesopotamia can look him over?”

“Absolutely not!” says Abraham. “Isaac stays right here.” (Remember: this is the son Abraham waited for all his life: the miracle baby conceived in his old age. Abraham wants to keep the boy close, where he can keep an eye on him.)

“But go, find the boy a wife. The angel of the Lord will show you what to do.”

*****

So, the unnamed servant sets out, with his camel caravan. As they ride into the city where Abraham’s kindred live, the servant has worked out a plan. He’s got a little test, by which God will let him know which young damsel of Mesopotamia is the right choice for his master’s son.

The plan has nothing to do with glass slippers. It’s all about water, and camels.

In every ancient Middle Eastern town or village, there was a place that was notorious as a venue for romantic liaisons. No, it wasn’t a singles bar, nor was it some smartphone dating app. It was the village well.

Think of it: a strict society that kept girls covered from head to toe, that confined them to their houses for most hours of the day. When would the young ladies of the household emerge into the public square? Twice a day: morning and evening, as they carried their stone jars down to the well.

By hanging around the well, the eligible young men of the village could — for a few short minutes — catch a glimpse of those pretty young things who’ve just reached marriageable age. If they’re bold enough, and lucky enough, they just might exchange a few words. Then, they could go home and maybe put a bug in their parents’ ear, so that — when it came time for their marriage to be arranged — they just might be lucky and get the girl they want.

Abraham’s servant, the matchmaker, knows this. And so it’s to the village well he goes, hoping to receive a sign from God that he’s found the right young woman.

The test he’s set up has two parts. First, the young woman’s got to offer him a drink of water. And second, she’s got to water his camels.

I know, it sounds like a really strange test. Can you imagine a TV reality show like The Bachelor being all about watering the livestock? But this is more than just random. There’s method to his madness.

A girl who offers him a drink is kind and hospitable. And a girl who takes the time to draw multiple jars full of water and dump them in the camels’ drinking-trough is generous and hard-working.

Well, as the story goes, he gets lucky with the first young woman he meets. Not only does she pour some water into the palm of her hand for him to drink, she also waters all ten camels without batting an eyelash. This girl’s not only good-looking. She’s “strong, like ox!”

Even more remarkable, it turns out Rebekah’s a distant relative of Isaac. She’s from Abraham’s own clan! Clearly, the Lord has led him directly to the right person, the young woman whom God has already chosen. Along with Isaac, this Rebekah will make Abraham the father of nations!

The servant offers Rebekah some costly gifts: a couple of heavy bracelets of solid gold and a gold nose-ring.

When her family sees young Rebekah sporting all that shiny bling, they know something’s up. So, they call in the family’s canniest negotiator: the wily Uncle Laban. (This is the first time Laban appears in the Bible. Years down the road, as a much older man, he’s going to figure prominently in the story of Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah — driving many a hard bargain with his nephew.) But here, Laban’s job is to negotiate the marriage contract, which he does in short order. Abraham’s servant pulls even more gold out of his saddlebags, and gives it to Rebekah’s parents as a dowry.

Now, mind you, nobody’s ever asked Rebekah if she goes along with the plan — though she did accept the gold nose-ring, which probably means she was OK with it. Her parents ask Abraham’s servant if they can have just ten more days with their beloved daughter, before she climbs up onto a camel and rides out of their lives forever.

Abraham’s man isn’t so keen on the idea. A deal’s a deal, after all. “Well, why don’t we ask Rebekah?” someone suggests. Yes: ask Rebecca. What a concept!

“Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad,” says Rebecca. She’s ready to go. Now.

Which she does. Then, many weeks later comes that touching scene when she sees her new husband for the first time. She slides down off her camel, pulls a veil over her face — to maintain the appropriate maidenly modesty — and, the Bible tells us Isaac “took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her.”

They lived happily ever after.

*****

So, where’s the gospel in this story? In this homey tale of boy meets girl, ancient Middle Eastern style, where’s the good news for us today?

Some commentators have pointed out that, throughout this lengthy chapter — the longest one in the book of Genesis, and one of the longest in all the Bible — there’s scarcely any mention of God. That’s a curiosity, but not so significant if we take a few steps back and regard the story in its larger context.

That context is covenant: the covenant between God and Abraham. At various points along the line, the covenant has appeared rather fragile, even untrustworthy. God promises all those descendants, but then Sarah doesn’t get pregnant. There’s that embarrassing episode with Hagar and her son Ishmael, before Isaac does, finally, come along. But then, years later, after the boy has become a man, there’s no suitable bride to be found for him, amongst all those foreigners who now surround Clan Abraham.

So, Abraham dreams up this harebrained scheme to send his man way back to the old country. His job: to entice an eligible young lady to embark on the same sort of bold journey Abraham himself went on, when he heard the voice of God say “Go,” and he went.

Turns out, Rebekah is cut from the same bold and faithful cloth as her new father-in-law. She takes a big risk on a total stranger: and God blesses that risk. Ever since that day, the people of Israel — and Christians beside — have honored her as one of the matriarchs.

*****

So, what sort of promise has God made to you? What sort of dream do you have for God’s sake that’s yet to be realized?

It’s a very tricky thing indeed, trying to puzzle out God’s will for our lives. Would that we could develop some sort of test — some modern-day equivalent of sharing a cool drink, then watering ten camels — that would prove to us that God’s promises are reliable, and that we too have a part in the great story of salvation!

As you and I wake up each morning, and decide what exactly we’re going to do with the next 16 hours or so, how do we salvage some of those precious hours for holy purposes? How on earth, in a world of so many competing priorities, do we respond to Christ’s call to discipleship?

The answer — to borrow a line from a famous athletic-shoe manufacturer — is “Just do it.” Don’t put it off. Don’t overthink it. Don’t wait till the opportune time. Because, you know something? Whenever the Lord issues a call to serve, God also provides the means to accomplish it.

Talking to his servant, Abraham calls it an angel: but whether we envision it in that very personal way, or as a more abstract intersection of divine power with human reluctance, God does give us what we need.

Our New Testament lesson from Romans 8 promises: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” It’s true, you know. It was true for Rebekah. And it’s true for you and me as well.

So, in your life of \Christian discipleship, pray tenaciously, believe strongly, risk boldly. If you truly love God, if you’ve been called according to God’s purposes — as you were at your baptism — then all things will work together for good, as long as what you’re doing is God’s work.

You can rely on it. It’s a promise!
Let us pray.
You were there, O God, to hear our borning cry.
You are there when we are old.
From our first day to our last,
and every day in between,
every moment, waking or sleeping,
you are our God and we are your people.
Give to us a full measure of your Holy Spirit,
so that, in everything we say and do,
we may glorify your name. Amen.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.