A Pattern of Prayer, part 1: A Pattern of Need
February 14, 2016 | Genesis 24 (Praying for a wife for Isaac)
Today, you may have noticed, is Valentine’s Day. You can tell by all the pink and red hearts and the candies and cards.
Valentine’s Day has a spotty history, or supposed history, having been established in 496 by a pope who listed Valentinus as a martyr “whose name is justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”
Although the pope could not say anything about what Valentinus had done, there eventually grew up a variety of legends about a priest named Valentinus who was martyred about 270 AD. Most prominent was the idea that he was martyred for performing marriages for Christians, and that’s the idea that had the most market appeal, so that eventually “Saint Valentine’s Day,” February 14, became associated with romantic and courtly love.
It really has no spiritual significance whatsoever, and the Catholic Church has dropped it as a part of the General Roman Calendar, but it continues to sell cards, candy, and clothes.
As we were trying to figure out how we were going to approach this sermon series, I realized that we would be starting on February 14, and one of the very first specific instances of prayer in the Bible just happened to concern how God brought about a particular marriage in a particular place in time. You may be surprised that it involves camels.
I thought it might actually sanctify Valentine’s Day a bit.
It is no secret that our current view of love and marriage (even before the Supreme Court’s
decision last summer) is historically odd. We tend to think that marriage is the result of being struck by an overwhelming emotion that leads you to realize that THIS IS THE ONE FOR YOU.
But most marriages at most times and places were not romantically motivated — indeed many, many marriages have been arranged by families for various practical and political reasons.
As we look at today’s passage in Genesis 24, we will see an early arranged marriage which
proceeds along different lines — with camels playing an integral role.
* * *
Abraham was chosen to be the father of the nation which would enter the Promised Land and there worship God, and from who Messiah would come. God had called him out of Ur, which is a land far to the east of what would become Israel.
And “called him out” means invited him to walk with his wife and household 600 miles to the land of Canaan. And Abraham, in an amazing display of faith in God, does this thing.
Eventually he and Sarah have a son, Isaac (I’m leaving out some pretty big parts of the story), and Sarah passes away.
And the text which Priscilla read for us says that Abraham is very old, and that the “the LORD had blessed him in every way.” He is in the Land that God had promised and he has the son which God had promised, and his life had been blessed.
There is one thing left — Isaac is not married — and Abraham does not want his son to marry from the people of the Land and he does not want his son to make the long journey back and be tempted to stay.
So he makes his chief servant — think of him as a senior assistant, because this man is not a slave — promise to find a wife for Isaac. The servant promised, and goes back to Nahor.
Let’s pick up in verse 10, after Abraham has given detailed instructions:
10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and left, taking with him all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water.
It was a long trip.
Abraham had not sent him all the way back to Ur, but had sent him back to Aram Naharaim — Aram between the Rivers — to a town called Nahor, probably several weeks journey from where Abraham and Isaac were living.
And the man is thirsty and tired, and the camels are thirsty and tired, and they arrive at a well and the servant has the camels kneel down to wait. (Camels, unlike horses, get down when they are resting.)
And now we have the first recorded example of a prayer for guidance and success:
12 Then he prayed, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the
townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 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.”
Who is praying? It isn’t Abraham, it isn’t Isaac, it isn’t one of the giants of the faith — it isn’t even a person who is named in the text. The man has been traveling for days on an errand given him by his boss, and he gets to Nahor (maybe not the first place he had stopped) and he offers a prayer.
Who does he pray to? This is nothing vague, he prays to “Yahweh, God of my master Abraham.” Now, there are three common words for God in the Hebrew Bible.The first, translated “God,” is “Elohim” in Hebrew; the second, “Yahweh,” translated “Lord” in large and small caps in your bible is usually used in settings which the God’s covenant relationship with his people is in view; and the third, “Adonai” is usually translated “Lord” and printed in normal roman type. Adonai is a general word for a master or lord or ruler. This last one is not restricted to God himself, and is used in other contexts.
Here, because the praying man is referring to Abraham’s God, he uses all three words in a row,like this:
Yahweh, Elohim adonai Avraham . . . .
The last part “adonai Avraham” means “of my master Abraham” and is not used as God’s name, but it is a nice rhetorical touch that the prayer uses all three of the main words for God.
Abraham’s servant is praying to Abraham’s God.
What does he pray for? He prays for two specific things:
. . . give me success today, and show kindness to my master
Abraham. . . .
He asks for success for himself in the carrying out of his job, and kindness for Abraham.
But don’t miss the word “kindness.”
Your translation may say “steadfast love” (ESV); “faithfulness” (NET); “lovingkindness” (NAS). In Hebrew the word is hesed, and important Old Testament word which means all of those things (“kindness,” “steadfast love,” “faithful love,” “loyal love”), and which is commonly used in a setting where there is an agreement or relationship or covenant in which showing kindness, love and loyalty is equivalent to preserving the covenant.
Hesed is a very appropriate word for Valentine’s Day.
And then, the man asks for a sign.
14 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.”
He prays that she will respond in a certain way. We will see that this sign has a particular
15 Before he had finished praying, [look] Rebekah came out with
her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of
Milcah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 The girl
was very beautiful, a virgin; no man had ever lain with her. She
went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again.
The writer uses that little Hebrew word, hinneh to put us in the moment. The man has just
finished praying and he hears something and when he opens his eyes, “Look!” there is a woman coming up to him.
She is “very beautiful,” she is a “young woman of marriageable age,” but she is not actually married.
She has come to the area of the well, gone down to the spring itself, filled up her water jar and come back up. You can get a good idea of how much water she might have by thinking how much a strong young woman might carry in an earthenware jar. I imagine that she might carry 5 gallons — about 45 pounds or 20 kilograms. (You would want to carry as much as you could so that you didn’t have to take too many trips.)
She’s beautiful, she’s available, but how will she respond to Abraham’s servant?
17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”
18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her
hands and gave him a drink.
Even though she would have to go back down and get more water, she “quickly” takes the jar from her shoulder and gives him a drink. But what had the man prayed?
14 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
He had wanted a sign that showed that she was more than just hospitable — she was generous.
19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for
your camels too, until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she
quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to
draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without
saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful.
Not only does she say what the man had prayed for, she goes beyond it “until they have finished drinking.” This was no small feat. I don’t know how thirsty these particular camels were, but apparently a camel might drink as much as 25 gallons of water at a time, and the man had ten camels, so this was an offer to get up to 250 gallons of water! She might have been offering to fill up her jug 50 times!
Now that we think about it, the sign the man was asking for was a pretty shrewd character test — as she does this she proves to be generous and extravagantly kind to strangers.
22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels.
What is he doing? He is showing her that he is a person of means, though notice that he had not ruined the test by offering to pay her if she would be hospitable. The reader, of course, also is aware that this may turn out to be part of the marriage gift.
23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?”
24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milcah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”
Notice that she tells about her family and the man recognizes the names. Nahor was Abraham’s brother (Gen. 11:27), so this probably means that Rebekah is Isaac’s first cousin once removed. This is a good thing in context, not a concern.
Again, she goes beyond hospitality — “plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”
26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the LORD, 27 saying, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.”
What is this?
Another prayer — this time a prayer of praise for God’s “kindness” (hesed again), and
faithfulness. The man also recognizes that the Lord has answered the part of the prayer that was for his own success, by bringing him to the house of Abraham’s relatives.
The story continues:
28 The girl ran and told her mother’s household about these things.
29 Now Rebekah had a brother named Laban, and he hurried out to the man at the spring. 30 As soon as he had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the man said to her, he went out to the man and found him standing by the camels near the spring. 31 “Come, you who are blessed by the LORD,” he said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.”
Rebekah’s brother (who will not turn out to be such a reliable guy later in Genesis) is very
impressed by the gold given as gifts to his sister.
32 So the man went to the house, and the camels were unloaded.
Straw and fodder were brought for the camels, and water for him
and his men to wash their feet. 33 Then food was set before him, but he said, “I will not eat until I have told you what I have to say.”
“Then tell us,” Laban said.
Laban was probably hungry — he just wanted to get down to the food and this guy wanted to make an announcement — a long announcement, as it turns out.
34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The LORD has blessed
my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, menservants and
maidservants, and camels and donkeys. 36 My master’s wife Sarah has borne him a son in her old age, and he has given him
everything he owns. 37 And my master made me swear an oath, and said, ‘You must not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live, 38 but go to my father’s family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son.’
39 “Then I asked my master, ‘What if the woman will not come
back with me?’
40 “He replied, ‘The LORD, before whom I have walked, will send
his angel with you and make your journey a success, so that you
can get a wife for my son from my own clan and from my father’s
family. 41 Then, when you go to my clan, you will be released from my oath even if they refuse to give her to you—you will be
released from my oath.’
42 “When I came to the spring today, I said, ‘O LORD, God of my
master Abraham, if you will, please grant success to the journey on which I have come. 43 [Look], I am standing beside this spring; if a maiden comes out to draw water and I say to her, “Please let me drink a little water from your jar,” 44 and if she says to me, “Drink, and I’ll draw water for your camels too,” let her be the one the LORD has chosen for my master’s son.’
45 “Before I finished praying in my heart, [look] Rebekah came out, with her jar on her shoulder. She went down to the spring and drew water, and I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’ 46 “She quickly lowered her jar from her shoulder and said, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too.’ So I drank, and she watered the camels also. 47 “I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ “She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel son of Nahor, whom Milcah bore to him.’ “Then I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms, 48 and I bowed down and worshiped the LORD. I praised the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son.
So very quickly, before dinner, the man repeats the whole story about how he had come to Nahor, and he now asks a loaded question:
49 Now if you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master,
tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn.”
The reader wonders — what will the family think of this?
50 Laban and Bethuel answered, “This is from the LORD; we can
say nothing to you one way or the other. 51 Here is Rebekah; take
her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed.”
What are they going to say, really?
52 When Abraham’s servant heard what they said, he bowed down to the ground before the LORD. 53 Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and to her mother.
54 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night there.
Notice verse 52 — the servant prays again, this time a prayer of thanksgiving.
It was part of the cultural pattern to give gifts to the bride’s family — after all, she was being taken away from the economy of her parents, and she was valuable. (They did not have the tradition of throwing rice and birdseed, though.) The way this is described, though, shows that Abraham is being very generous.
54b When they got up the next morning, he said, “Send me on my
way to my master.”
55 But her brother and her mother replied, “Let the girl remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.”
56 But he said to them, “Do not detain me, now that the LORD has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.”
Uh oh. This sounds like a disruption to God’s plan — the family wants her to stick around for a while, but because of the way things have developed, the man is pretty sure that God wants him to go home NOW.
57 Then they said, “Let’s call the girl and ask her about it.” 58 So they
called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”
“I will go,” she said.
And so Rebekah’s faith is also shown. Like Abraham, she is willing to leave to be part of the plan of God.
59 So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her
nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed
Rebekah and said to her,
“Our sister, may you increase
to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
the gates of their enemies.”
61 Then Rebekah and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and left.
Finally, now, we see why there were so many camels. Abraham expected that the journey would be successful and that there would be more people coming back than went.
62 Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in
the Negev. 63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and [look! there were] camels approaching. 64 Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 65 and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”
“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.
Rebekah wants to know who this is and the servant says “My master,” which could have meant Abraham, but (since the person is out wandering) must mean “Isaac” instead. And so Rebekah meets her husband-to-be for the first time.
66 Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67 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.
As we come to the end of the story, Abraham’s charge has been completed, the servant’s prayer has been answered, and Isaac has married, so that the line of promise can continue.
* * *
That’s the story — a good story which does not directly translate into our culture — but what do we learn about prayer?
First, it is not necessary to be special in order to pray. The unnamed servant, not Abraham, is the one whose prayer is recorded. There’s no need to be an important person to be able to pray.
This pretty obviously fits with the pattern of Scripture — it is not just the important,
educated or powerful who are permitted to pray.
Second, it is key that the man prays to the true God, Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God, who had made promises to Abraham.
This pretty obviously fits with the pattern of Scripture — Prayer is addressed to the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth. It is not, for example addressed to angels or men and women living or dead, though of course you might ask others for assistance.
Third, it is key that the prayer is for something that God wants to do.
How do we know that God wants Isaac to be married?
When Abraham’s servant prayed for God to show covenant love (hesed) to Abraham, he was asking God to keep the promises God had made to Abraham back in Genesis 12. How was that relevant? If a great nation is going to come from Abraham, Isaac is going to have to be married and have children.
Indeed, it is completely clear that Isaac getting married is God’s will. Since Abraham also knew that Isaac should not leave the Land or marry a Canaanite, he could be pretty sure that God would want something like this. I say “something like this,” because Abraham leaves open the possibility that God will not work the way he expects.
How? He tells his servant that if the girl refuses to come back, then the servant is released from the vow. Abraham has good reason to think that he knows what God is doing, but he leaves open the possibility that he is wrong about the details. Prayer has to be humble, because God may not do what the pray-er asks.
This makes sense from other prayers we are familiar with, most notably Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Let this cup pass. . . .”), and Paul’s prayer that God would take away his “thorn in the flesh” (“I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. . . .”). Even those who pray properly may find that God does not do what is asked.
If we are trying to understand prayer from the Scripture, we are going to have to understand that.
If you are unmarried and praying for a spouse, this passage will give you no comfort, I am afraid, because unlike Isaac you can’t be sure that marriage is something that God wants for you. Paul is rather clear that God has called some to be single.
If that is your calling, it is not a matter of punishment, it is a matter of covenant, for God has certainly promised to finish the work he has begun in you. It may be a mistake to ask for a spouse because that is what we want without asking if marriage would further God’s plans. In Genesis 24, it is clear that marriage is part of God’s plan for Isaac.
Because of the fact that the servant prays for a sign we might wonder whether that is a necessary or appropriate method for us to use in prayer.
I remember a practice that was called “laying fleeces,” which meant that you would pray
something like “O Lord, if you want me to go to the dance, then let an old friend call me up
within the next 24 hours.” The idea was that God could get a coded message through if we just specified the code for him. This comes from Gideon’s verification of the Lord’s will in the book of Judges, but it is noteworthy that this is not a pattern which is repeated in the New Testament. As we have seen in Matthew, Jesus is pretty hard on those who ask for signs.
And that’s not quite what the servant is doing, anyway. It is not a random event that he is
looking for, he is asking God to reveal the young woman’s generosity in the way she responds to him at the well. He is asking for discernment, not laying fleeces.
So I draw a third conclusion, at least tentatively — It is appropriate to ask God for things you believe he wants to do, but it is important to recognize that even if you are right
about God’s desires, you may be wrong about his methods — if you are praying to God,
you have to let him be God.
Fourth, God answers this prayer through the free choices of people, most importantly, Rebekah. Because she is willing to see God’s hand in the meeting and to act on her belief that God is calling her to be married to Isaac, it is her actions (and the servant’s own actions) with God’s actions which answer the servant’s prayers. It is not all miracles and divine intervention.
I think this fits with the pattern of the other prayers in the Bible. So I draw a fourth
conclusion — God uses the faithful acts of his people to answer prayer.
Finally, do you notice the servant’s response to God’s answer? He worships. He praises and thanks God. He gives God the credit for what God has brought about. It seems that he might have said “I did a good job here, that was a very clever question that I asked in order to decide whether this would be a good woman for Isaac.
I think this fits with the rest of Scripture as well — As we see God’s response to prayer,
we offer him worship.
In the coming weeks we will add to these ideas and refine them as we try to understand the
Pattern of Prayer in the Scriptures.
And so, let us pray . . . .