Theology in 3D

Assessing an Unusual Romance

Ken Casillas | January 25, 2018
Old Testament

Old Testament narrative has long been a favorite of Bible readers and preachers, a rich source of practical teaching and encouragement. It was that way for the Apostle Paul. After challenging the Corinthians on the basis of several Old Testament stories, he generalized: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11).

On the other hand, since Old Testament stories don’t typically state a theological point or “moral,” they are subject to all manner of dubious non-contextual interpretations and applications. Consider one classic example: Genesis 24, where Abraham’s servant travels to Mesopotamia to procure a bride for Isaac.

TWO QUESTIONABLE APPROACHES

Some have allegorized this text. Abraham typifies God the Father, who sends the Spirit (Abraham’s servant) to find a bride, the church (Rebekah), for Christ (Isaac). While the theological principle here is sound, it’s imported from the New Testament. One would be hard-pressed to show how this idea is based on or related to the original intent of Moses as he wrote the Pentateuch. It’s also difficult to know where and on what basis to stop once one begins to follow this approach. Do the servant’s camels symbolize something too?

Others have moralized Genesis 24. The passage sets forth guidelines that believers should follow in the process of finding a spouse. In particular, parents ought to play a strong role in the process, even following a formal “courtship” method. This approach to Genesis 24suffers from the same kinds of problems as the allegorizing approach. Maybe we could legitimately use this story in a general way as an illustration of other passages’ teaching on parental leadership. But does anything in the context suggest that Moses is here writing a manual for obtaining a wife for one’s child? Furthermore, the use of this text for courtship will have to be rather selective. With something so heavily influenced by the culture of the time, where do the parallels end? Should a father have a servant (slave?) who sets up the courtship? Should the servant swear by putting his hand under his master’s thigh? Should he ask a random woman for a drink of water and pray for a “sign”? Should he give the prospective wife a nose ring? You get the idea.

A BETTER APPROACH

It’s easy to poke holes in weak interpretations. What we need to concentrate on is developing a method for arriving at more more solid interpretations and applications. And central to such a method is sensitivity to genre.

How does the genre of Old Testament narrative work? Hebrew narrative has some peculiarities that differentiate it from typical modern/Western narrative. It does not, for example, provide much direct description of the characters. In addition, a technical analysis would look at the form of the Hebrew verb in each clause in order to distinguish between the mainline of the story and, say, background information or emphasized material.

Without getting into technicalities, however, any careful student of Scripture can identify the basic theme(s) of an Old Testament narrative. This requires giving attention to the four generally accepted primary elements of any well-told story: plot, characterization, setting, and point of view.* Below I’ll touch on some highlights of these elements in Genesis 24, and I encourage you to take the study further.

PLOT

Plots typically center on some kind of conflict or tension. The tension in Genesis 24 is not simply that Isaac needs a wife. That would not have been a difficult problem to solve in the ancient world. Abraham indicates the issue at stake when he makes his servant swear “that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (vv. 3b-4). The issue is the kindof wife Isaac should have.

Furthermore, Abraham’s concern is tied to his faith in God’s promises concerning his offspring and concerning the land of Canaan. He insists that Isaac not go to Mesopotamia but that a woman be brought to Canaan for him. He doesn’t want his son to be drawn away from the land of promise. In fact, Abraham would free the servant from his oath if the woman is unwilling to come. Overall, though, he is confident that Yahweh will provide the right wife for Isaac (vv. 5-8).

The first-time reader doesn’t know whether this will happen, however. So the tension builds as the servant travels, arrives in Mesopotamia, prays and asks God for unmistakable leading to the right woman, and then witnesses Rebekah—the daughter of Abraham’s nephew—become the answer to his prayer (vv. 10-26).

The situation is not entirely resolved, however, until Rebekah and her family agree to the marriage proposal. But before this happens, Abraham’s servant retells almost word for word the events just recounted. His extended speech has the effect of building further tension until the family acknowledges Yahweh’s hand and acquiesces to the marriage (vv. 50-51).

Some suspense remains until the next day when Rebekah herself says, “I will go” (v. 58b). From that point on, the story hastens to its denouement as Isaac and Rebekah commence their lives together (v. 67).

CHARACTERIZATION

My plot summary points to the characteristic shared by the human characters in Genesis 24: faith. From his own confession we know that it is faith in God’s promises that moves Abraham to send the servant to Mesopotamia. Faith is less explicit but still evident in the responses of Rebekah, her family, and Isaac, as they embrace the promises at work in their own lives.

Faith clearly motivates the servant in his quest. He attributes Abraham’s greatness to Yahweh’s blessing (v. 35). He also connects the provision of Rebekah to Yahweh’s covenant loyalty (khesed, vv. 13, 14, 26; cf. v. 49). But faith is not merely a matter of verbal confession. The servant shows his faith through concrete actions: the trip to Mesopotamia, earnest prayer, and the completion of his task.

We still need to consider the central role of God as a character in Genesis 24. He demonstrates his faithfulness specifically through providence. On this point, the servant’s words in verse 27 need special consideration. In the KJV the last part of the verse reads, “I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master’s brethren.” This has been taken to teach the importance of putting oneself “in the way” of obedience or service as we seek God’s guidance in life.

Here is another biblical truth that is not the point of the text cited. The KJV has added the word being. That’s because there is no verbal in that part of the sentence. The Hebrew pronoun translated “I” is in the “hanging case,” and its nuance is best communicated by modern versions such as the ESV: “As for me, the LORD has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” The verse spotlights not the obedience of the servant but the kind providence of God in leading him. The servant makes this point again in verses 40, 42, 48, and 56. I don’t want to minimize the servant’s obedience, but I do want to put the emphasis where he does!

SETTING

Different kinds of setting inform a biblical narrative and shape its meaning. Historicalsetting concerns the author, audience, circumstances, and purpose(s) of a passage and the book in which it occurs. Moses presumably wrote Genesis for the second generation of Israelites after the exodus. They were tasked with conquering Canaan, and Genesis was designed at least in part to prepare them for that awesome responsibility. They were forbidden to marry Canaanites (Deut 7:1-11), and Genesis 24 taught them that their patriarch Abraham made sure that Isaac didn’t marry one either.

This thought is underscored by the inter-textual setting of Genesis 24, the connection between this story and other stories in Genesis. As far back as chapter 9, Genesis begins to reveal the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites (vv. 20ff). The story of Lot reveals the grave dangers of association with such people (chs. 13, 18–19). These accounts also clarify that the prohibition against intermarriage with the Canaanites was a spiritual not an ethnic matter. And the issue comes up again after Genesis 24—see the sad developments in chapters 28, 34, and 38.

Even more significant in the inter-textual setting are the divine covenant promises that have animated the whole Abraham story as well as the patriarch’s growth in believing these promises. In earlier years of his pilgrimage he had some notable failures (chs. 12, 16, 20). But following the climactic victory of faith in chapter 22, Abraham’s confidence in the Lord at the end of his life is truly inspiring.

Speaking of Genesis 22, the wish of Rebekah’s family in 24:60,

Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!

echoes the promise of Yahweh in 22:17,

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.

Intra-textual setting also provides interpretive help. This involves any temporal, geographical, historical, or cultural information mentioned within the narrative itself. For instance, we better appreciate the servant’s commitment when we realize that the trip to Mesopotamia was over 500 miles long and would have taken around a month. As I noted earlier, Genesis 24 contains a good deal of culture as it relates to ancient Near Eastern marriage customs. For example, Rebekah’s brother Laban played a role—evidently the leading role—in approving her marriage as well as her father Bethuel (vv. 50, 55; see Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, 342-43). This cautions us against making the role of the bride’s father a main point in the story.

POINT OF VIEW

A narrator has ways to convey his perspective in addition to plot, characterization, and setting. Narrator “omniscience” and irony are examples. A narrator may also include explicit interpretive comments or summary statements.

Genesis 22 begins and ends with summary statements: “Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. . . . So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (vv. 1, 67). Though mentioning old age and death, these remarks frame the story with a positive atmosphere concerning God’s long-term faithfulness, assuring the reader that God’s plan will endure and progress from one generation to the next.

The large amount of repetition in the story may also be considered an aspect of point of view. Genesis 24 is about twice as long as it “needs” to be; indeed, it is the longest chapter in the book. While the repetitiveness may seem tedious to the modern reader, it is a means by which the narrator is “shouting” his message so we don’t miss it.

THEME AND APPLICATION

What is the message being shouted? As we pull together all the material we’ve covered, we may generalize the message as follows:

God works providentially to continue his covenant promises from generation to generation.
Therefore, his people must trust him and do what he has called on them to do in order to advance the promises.

Note that God has the first word. His faithfulness is the main point. That’s what gets the attention in all the repetition: Yahweh’s unflinching loyalty to Abraham and the amazing way in which he works to demonstrate that loyalty.

Man has a part to play in God’s plan, though: believe his promises and act accordingly—even when risk is involved and we’re not sure of the immediate outcome.

It isn’t hard to connect this theme to Christ and the gospel. In fact, the gospel represents the culmination of the Abrahamic covenant promises. And Genesis 24 helps us to realize that God accomplishes his gospel purposes today precisely through our faith-filled activity.

Sometimes our activity reflects a lack of faith. It may amount to trying to do the Lord’s work for him—recall the Hagar incident in Genesis 16 (cf. Gal 4:21ff). But Genesis 24recounts God-dependent work, taking appropriate measures as an expression of faith in his promises.

These truths apply to many areas of life, but Genesis 24 should be especially comforting to people who like, Abraham, are nearing the end of their time on earth. They are assured that God will continue to work after they are gone, and they are encouraged to stay faithful to the end.

Genesis 24 challenges us all to do everything we can to pass on God’s truth to the next generation, trusting that his work transcends our own limited time and experience. This trust includes the confidence that whether or not we see the results we would like, his redemptive purposes will not fail.

Does Genesis 24 apply to marriage? Definitely! The theme of this text supports the truth that believers should marry only “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). Here is a key way through which God continues his work from generation to generation: marriage between Christians (cf. Mal 2:15).

I hope this study has gotten you started on a valid approach to Genesis 24. Do you have some other insights on how to understand and apply this beautiful story? Feel free to share them in the comments section.

*For more discussion of these, see Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative.

Photo credit: Ben Rosett, unsplash.com


4 responses to “Assessing an Unusual Romance”

  1. Mark Olivero says:

    Thank you for this. Good advice on careful use of the OT that avoids a “moralistic” approach. I am also curious about other ways to move into a bolder Christological focus from this text. Seems to me that they are several other legitimate moves we could make:
    – contrast between being “of slave woman” with being “of the free woman” (as you note in Gal 4 and – if we ignore the chapter division – going into Gal 5. This kind of freedom is one that produces good works in us for Christ’s sake)
    – the marriage of the Lamb as a culmination of the all the gathered saints (thus, a great hope that awaits us)
    – election (God having in mind his people to be joined to Christ)
    – Union with Christ (we are in the work of redemption made one with Christ not only in salvation from sin, but also in all of life by the Spirit of Christ in us)

    • Ken Casillas says:

      Hi Mark! Certainly much more could be said–I had to stop as I was already at double my word-count target. :} I believe the main Christological connection is that God providentially provided the wife needed to continue the line that would bring Christ into the world. Greidanus (with whom I don’t always agree) goes this way also and suggests the following sermon goal: “To encourage the church to entrust itself for its existence to the LORD’s providential care” (Preaching Christ from Genesis, 236). Probably the points you mention could be brought up as applications of this idea. When it comes to this sort of thing, I try to distinguish b/t the message of the text itself and applications I’m suggesting. I also try to moderate my boldness based on the degree to which I’m certain that the connections I’m making reflect the intent of the text. At least the divine intent in view of the whole canon, and preferably the human authors’ intent also.

  2. Randy Jaeggli says:

    I actually heard a preacher identify the allegorical significance of the camel: it is a church bus! In fact the whole point is his message was the centrality of the bus ministry. After all, Rebekah would never have gotten to Isaac without the camel!
    Thanks for the excellent post.

    • Ken Casillas says:

      Randy, at times I have joked about the church bus idea, but I don’t think I’d ever heard of someone actually saying that. Wow!

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