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A BRIDE FOR ISAAC,

A BRIDE FOR THE MESSIAH

 

by Doug Ward

The plot of the twenty-fourth chapter of Genesis can be summarized in just a few words (``A bride is found for Isaac''), and most of the action in the chapter (vv. 11-61) takes place within a single day. Yet at sixty-seven verses, Gen. 24 is the longest chapter in Genesis and has the third most verses of any chapter in the Pentateuch. 1 Why does the Bible devote so much space to a description of the matchmaking mission of Abraham's servant Eliezer? What important lessons are contained in this detailed narrative? To answer these questions, let's take a closer look at Genesis 24.

The Servant's Assignment

Our chapter begins by noting that ``Abraham was now old and well advanced in years'' (v.1, NIV). Not only was Abraham at least 137 years old by this time; he had also recently lost his beloved wife Sarah (Gen. 23:1), who had stood beside him through many challenges and trials. According to one tradition, his eulogy for her is preserved in the description of the ``woman of valor'' in Prov. 31:10-31 [2, pp. 250-251]. Whether or not this tradition is true, Abraham loved Sarah deeply and must have missed her desperately. The exorbitant price he paid for their burial place (23:16) certainly reflects his regard for her as well as his trust in God's promises and his awkward position as a sojourner in the land of Canaan.

Not knowing how much longer he had to live, Abraham concentrated on a major item of unfinished business: finding the right wife for his adult son Isaac, through whom God's promises were to be transmitted to future generations. He delegated this crucial task to ``the chief servant in his household'' (v. 2). That servant is never named in chapter 24 but is traditionally identified as ``Eliezer of Damascus'' (15:2). Assuming that he was part of Abraham's household at the time of the patriarch's original journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan, Eliezer was no youngster himself-he had been serving Abraham for over sixty-two years! In any case, Abraham placed great trust in him.

Abraham instructed Eliezer to go back to Mesopotamia and seek a bride for Isaac among Abraham's large extended family there (vv. 3-4; 22:20-24). He made his steward solemnly swear (vv. 2,9) that he would not arrange a marriage for Isaac with a Canaanite partner. There were probably at least two reasons for this stipulation. First, the moral depravity of the Canaanites was well known, going all the way back to Canaan himself (see 9:20-27). The ``sin of the Amorites'' (15:16) would eventually lead to their ejection from the land. In the meantime, the example of Abraham's nephew Lot had demonstrated the disastrous consequences of too close an involvement with the local population.

Second, as suggested by Rabbi Chanoch Waxman [3], Abraham must have hoped that Isaac's wife would share some of the character traits of Sarah and himself. In particular, a woman who would leave her home behind and travel to a distant country to marry a man she had never met was likely to possess the kind of faith that had led Abraham and Sarah to undertake a similar journey over sixty years before.

Abraham also specified that under no circumstances was Isaac to accompany Eliezer (v. 6). Isaac's place was in the land that God had promised to him and his descendants. Abraham had faith that even under this constraint, God would bring about the success of Eliezer's mission (v.7).

The Character of Rebekah

Eliezer prepared carefully for the journey to Mesopotamia, which would normally take three to four weeks (v. 10; [2, p. 267]). He must have had plenty of time on the trip to consider how to accomplish his mission. Upon his arrival in Haran he went first to the local well, a natural place to pick up information about the inhabitants, including Abraham's family. He then prayed for guidance, asking God to make known the right bride for Isaac through a particular sign:

``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'' (v. 14).

Eliezer received an immediate response to his entreaty. Before the servant had even finished praying, Abraham's beautiful grandniece Rebekah appeared at the well, shouldering a water jar. When Eliezer requested a drink, Rebekah offered water to his camels too, just as he had specified (vv. 15-21). Seeing the answer to his prayer, the servant produced a gold nose ring and two gold bracelets for the young woman and asked who she was.

Some rabbinic commentators wondered about the servant's choice of identifying signs for the future wife of Isaac. Wouldn't if have been a matter of common courtesy for any young woman at the well to have offered water to Eliezer's animals? These commentators saw an additional test hidden in the details of the ring and bracelets. The weight of the ring was one beka, and the numerical equivalents of the letters in beka add up to 172, which happens to be the total number of words in the text of the Ten Commandments. The two gold bracelets could represent the two tablets of the Decalogue, with the ten shekel weight of the bracelets signaling a further connection to the commandments. Building on this data, one thread of Jewish tradition claims that Eliezer wasn't just offering jewelry to Rebekah. In addition, he presented to her the divine truths he had learned from Abraham in order to test her willingness to receive such instruction [2, p. 271].

However, one does not have to resort to numerology to discern something significant about Rebekah's character from the text of Genesis 24. Providing water for ten thirsty camels would have required a great many trips to the well, and Rebekah didn't merely propose to give the camels a drink. Instead, her offer was to draw water for them ``until they have finished drinking'' (v. 19). In addition, we should notice the eagerness with which she carried out this task. Verse 20 says that she ``quickly'' emptied her jar and ``ran'' back for more water. Waxman [3] points out the parallels between Gen. 24:20 and Gen. 18:6-7, where Abraham ``ran'' and ``hurried'' to provide a meal for his angelic visitors. In her hospitality and humble servant's attitude, Rebekah was like Abraham. Eliezer must have observed these qualities in Rebekah as he watched her scurry back and forth to water the camels.

Waxman also notes a contrast in Gen. 24 between Rebekah's attitude and that of her brother Laban. Laban offered food and lodging for Eliezer and the camels, but he may have been motivated by the wealth Eliezer displayed (v. 30). And though he and Rebekah's father Bethuel were forced to admit (perhaps grudgingly) that God had directed Eliezer to Rebekah, Laban still hoped to detain Abraham's servant for as long as possible. On the other hand, Rebekah did not hesitate or suggest any further delay when she was asked if she would go with Eliezer to become Isaac's wife. Instead she simply answered, ``I will go'' (v. 58), much as Abraham had responded to God's calling over sixty years before (Gen. 12:1-4). Rebekah was indeed the right person to marry the son of Abraham and Sarah.

Lessons about Marriage

The final verse of Genesis 24 briefly describes what happened when Eliezer and Rebekah arrived back in Canaan and Isaac first met his new bride:

“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.”

This verse seems to imply that the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah was a happy one.  Rebekah was a worthy successor to Sarah as matriarch of the line of promise, and she filled the large gap left in Isaac's life after the death of his mother.  Isaac's affection for Rebekah was so great that it was not possible for him to successfully pretend in Gerar that Rebekah was merely his sister (Gen. 26:8).  Later he sent his son Jacob back to Mesopotamia to find a wife among Rebekah's relatives, a further indication of his esteem for Rebekah (Gen. 28:2).        

In his book I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah [4], noted Christian evangelist and teacher Ravi Zacharias points out several factors that increased the chances of marital success for Isaac and Rebekah and can also help produce for us the strong marriages that God intends us to have. 

First, Isaac and Rebekah did not make the decision to marry entirely on our own.  In addition, the decision process involved members of both sides of the family.  This process was initiated by Abraham and Eliezer, both men of faith.  God's will was sought and followed, ensuring that an appropriate match was found.      

Second, Isaac and Rebekah were both people of upright character, mature and ready for marriage.  Isaac was a man of prayer, as evidenced by the fact that he was communing with God when Eliezer and Rebekah met him (Gen. 24:63).  Isaac was submissive to God's will in his life and honored his father (see, e.g., Gen. 22).  The similarity between the events of Gen. 26 and analogous events in Abraham's life emphasizes that Isaac was one who sought to follow in his father's footsteps. 

Rebekah was a virgin (Gen. 24:16) who brought the gift of purity to her marriage with Isaac.  Probably she too had prayed that God would bring her the right husband, and she must have waited patiently for God's answer.  When the time came for the final decision to be made, her family left that decision up to her, an indication of their confidence in her maturity and good judgment.  

 Many commentators have pointed out the order of events recorded in Gen. 24:67---``she became his wife, and he loved her.''  Isaac and Rebekah were mature enough to know that love is much more than a feeling.  More importantly, love is a commitment to lay down one's life for the other person on a daily basis.  In her readiness to provide water for Eliezer and his camels, Rebekah demonstrated that she was ready to make this kind of commitment.  Her kind and giving nature surely brought a great blessing to Isaac.             

In summary, Isaac and Rebekah were receptive to the guidance and wisdom of God and their families, possessed strong character, and were well prepared to make a lifelong commitment to each other.  These qualities were a firm foundation for their marriage and will help anchor our marriages as well. 

A Bride for the Messiah

In the book of Genesis, chapter 24 follows shortly after the account of Abraham's greatest test-God's directive that he offer Isaac as a burnt offering (Gen. 22). This incident is full of symbolic meaning. For Christians, Abraham's willingness to give up Isaac represents God's willingness to give his own Son as a sacrifice for human sin.

Messianic Jewish teacher Ariel Berkowitz proposes in [1, pp. 71-72] that we carry this symbolism forward to chapter 24. He observes that just as Abraham sought a bride for Isaac after Isaac was rescued from death as a sacrifice, so God desires a bride for the Messiah, his resurrected Son (see Rev. 19:6-8). Berkowitz then explores the analogy further, suggesting several parallels between the two settings. Here are some of the possibilities, including those listed in [1] along with a few additional ones:

(a) In Gen. 24, Rebekah did not come looking for Isaac. Instead, Abraham set in motion the process of finding Isaac's wife. Similarly, God has taken the initiative in calling a group of people to follow his Son (Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Thes. 2:13-14).

 

(b) Eliezer was sure that God had chosen a bride for Isaac in advance (Gen. 24:14). In the case of the bride of the Messiah, that choice was made ``before the foundation of the world'' (Eph. 1:4).

 

(c) Abraham sent out his trusted servant to identify and bring back Isaac's bride. The servant's name is not mentioned in Gen. 24, an indication that the servant's own identity did not matter. The servant was so dedicated to Abraham that he could be thought of as an extension of his master. Similarly, God sends the Holy Spirit, an extension of himself, to identify and prepare his Son's bride (Eph. 4:7-16).

 

(d) Isaac's bride would share with her husband the substantial riches with which Abraham had been blessed (Gen. 24:35-36). Similarly, the bride of the Messiah will inherit the entire universe along with him (Rom. 8:17).

 

(e) Abraham wanted Isaac's bride to be someone like himself, a person with the humble and willing attitude of a servant, given to hospitality. God looks for similar qualities in his Son's bride (Matt. 20:20-28; John 13:13-15; I Peter 1:15-16; 2:21).

 

(f) Isaac's bride would also need to be willing to step out on faith, leaving home and family behind, as Abraham and Sarah had previously done. It is the same with the bride of the Messiah (Luke 9:57-62; 14:26).

 

(g) With the character attributes in (d) and (e), Rebekah was different from those around her-her brother Laban, for example. The bride of the Messiah is also chosen to stand out from human society at large (Matt. 5:14-16; John 17:14).

As with any analogy, it is possible to stretch the connections too far.  Keeping that in mind, though, it is a valuable exercise to consider the messianic typology of Gen. 24 and other patriarchal narratives.

Conclusion

In Genesis 24 we see the faith of Abraham, the wisdom and loyalty of his trusted servant Eliezer, and the sterling character of Rebekah. These are examples for us to emulate as children of Abraham and members of the collective bride of the Messiah.  Doing so will strengthen our marriages and our relationship with God.  

References:

1. Ariel Berkowitz, Torah Club Volume Two: Yeshua in the Torah, First Fruits of Zion, Littleton, Colorado.

2. David Klinghoffer, The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, Doubleday, New York, 2003.

3. Chanoch Waxman, ``The Bride of Yitzchak,'' commentary on Parashat Chayei Sara available online at http://etzion.org.il/en/bride-yitzchak .

4.  Ravi Zacharias,  I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah, W Publishing Group, Nashville, 2004. 


Footnotes:

1Numbers 7 (89 verses) and Deuteronomy 28 (68 verses) are the only chapters in the Pentateuch with more verses than Genesis 24.

 

ISSUE 16

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