The Angel of Marriage
I am strongly convinced that Saint Valentine and I would have gotten along really well. Some stories said he healed a blind girl to convince a judge of the authority of Christ. He then used this proof to free Christians who were in prison. Pretty snazzy. Additionally, multiple stories exist about how, when and why he was martyred. Though the details vary, we celebrate his martyrdom every February 14th by buying chocolates, cards and flowers for one another. I'm not sure how he would feel about this celebration of his death. I'm leaning towards "seriously?". And that's why I think I'd get along with him. But this does prompt some interesting application: "dying" for the one you love is most in line when celebrating Saint Valentine. I think Saint Paul wrote about that in Ephesians somewhere...
But this post has nothing to do with Saint Valentine. I'm just softening your palate for a discussion on love. As a society we take love seriously. And by seriously I mean we spend lots of money towards manufacturing it. There are some awesome songs about love. Shakespeare wrote a couple good things that one time. And of course every year we get the chocolates and buy roses.
But what is God's view of love? Or more importantly, how seriously does God take the relationship between man and woman in a loving marriage? Many of us would have our New Testament stock answers to this question. Those are good answers. But they're usually didactic. They aren't stories. Where is our Shakespeare? Where are our love stories? Now I've got you thinking. Certainly Boaz and Ruth might come to mind. Maybe the Song of Solomon presents us with a clear example. Let's get really theological and talk about the love of Jesus Christ for His bride the church. That's a good one. I like that one. It incorporates the whole Bible. Though all of these are good, one often overlooked story has struck me recently. It strikes me for its combination of Biblical imagery, crazy chick-flick type moments, profound worship and true love.
Isaac & Rebekah
You may or may not remember the story of Isaac and Rebekah right away. Those patriarchs and their stories can get so confusing sometimes. Some of us may even wish the patriarch stories didn't exist. But we must remember that God still identifies His salvation in terms of "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (Matt 8:10-12; Luke 13:28-29). And once we dive into the story things should start coming back to us. Perhaps though, this passing familiarity has prevented us from seeing some incredible things about the worth that God places on marriage and true love. I'm in the habit of doing things in reverse lately so well shall watch this story unfold from the end to the beginning.
That Really Romantic Ending
All good romantic movies have an all important ending. The two reach the climax of the story and achieve the final closing state of the relationship. I'd go on a tangent here about Casablanca but I hear they're talking about re-making it and I don't want to jinx the classic. Tangent achieved.
My desire for Humphrey Bogart's hat aside, all good movies have that moment. That final moment when all tension is relieved and the closing credits can roll with us convinced of a proper outcome to the story. So also the story of Isaac and Rebekah arrives at this proper conclusion. Except theirs comes the first time they meet each other,
Now Isaac had returned from Beer-lahai-roi and was dwelling in the Negeb. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. - Genesis 24:62-67
Arranged marriage or not, it would seem the Lord did a pretty good job. Oh wait, I'm giving the story away by bring God into this already. Rebekah has already had her major parts in this story and the driving conclusion of her faithfulness comes when she sees Isaac. I'd like to read into the text that Isaac was a looker and Rebekah "fell" off her camel instead of properly dismounting but that might be a stretch. Instead I'll focus on what the text does say: Isaac loved her. Inserting a brief pause for those singing "Do You Love Me?" in their head.
After leaving her family and traveling many miles, Rebekah's faithfulness is honored by God with a man who loves her sincerely (part of this is indicated in that Isaac is "comforted" after his mother's death). This is the ultimate story of "love at first sight." This is the stuff movies try to emulate. God invented it. Some people might look ahead to Rebekah's deception of Isaac to refute my points. But I think we moderns misunderstand Middle Eastern deception (see Joseph with his brothers, Rehab with the spies, David pretending to be crazy, Solomon threatening to slice a baby, and almost everything Elijah and Elisha do). The texts says this love exists. And we'll take that at face value.
That Crazy Family Part
Every movie has a portion of manufactured tension. Typically it revolves around some expanding arc that sweeps through the character's relationship after hiding dormant within the family throughout the film. Well Rebekah's story isn't much different. Her family is full of gold diggers. And they really would prefer that Rebekah play their game to make them rich,
Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring. As soon as he saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister's arms, and heard the words of Rebekah his sister, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man. And behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.”
And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. And he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they arose in the morning, he said, “Send me away to my master.” Her brother and her mother said, “Let the young woman remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.” They said, “Let us call the young woman and ask her.” And they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.”- Genesis 24:29-31, 53-58
This really is the climax of the opposition for the story. Previously we saw the highlight of love. But here is the rise and fall of that "crazy family" moment. The heroine does it alone apart from Isaac. This man, the servant of Abraham, coming to take Rebekah to Isaac is rolling in gifts. Get him to stay around and the "cost" for Rebekah might be able to go up a little more. And that would certainly set the family up nicely. Behind this however lies the spiritual truth: the family refuses to acknowledge the true authority of the servant. He goes on behalf of Abraham. Rebekah's family are rejecting Abraham. But behind Abraham we'll see the ultimate authority is God. Rebekah's family is rejecting God. In contrast, Rebekah's willingness to go should be placed on par with Ruth's confession to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-18). It is this faithfulness that God honors by providing Rebekah the love of Isaac.
That Weird Coincidence Part
Most of these romantic movies, especially the comedy laced ones, have a scene that defies real life. It walks a fine line for marks on reality. This story has something like that too. It is closer to reality though. It has to be. It really happened,
Then the servant took ten of his master's camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor. And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water. Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. - Genesis 24:10-20
I've never served water to a camel. I've never drawn water from a well. That's really irrelevant though. What's important is that this is to be the special mark of Isaac's wife. Perhaps contained in this story is a wonderful example of the humbleness of Rebekah. Her willingness to serve a stranger is certainly on display. But it was the service to the camels that was unique. While this may be marks for Rebekah's character, it shouldn't be missed that this is the fulfillment of the sign orchestrated with God. It was enough to mark God's steadfast love to Abraham in a display of His mighty power. Neither aspect should be allowed to overwhelm each other. We know from the rest of the story that Rebekah is a woman with a heart unlike that of her family. It was probably unlike the hearts of the other women in the town. None of this should be denied to Rebekah. Her respect and submission goes rewarded by God and should be praised.
But the real point lying behind this is that coincidence has nothing on God. Most romantic movies praise the god called "fate" and "true love" as if either can work to bring about such a moment of coincidence. But here the Biblical story wraps this moment in the greater tapestry of God's love. The ultimate love of Rebekah and Isaac is a display of God's love for Abraham. God has this funny thing about wanting to bless the children of His faithful servants (Gen 17:8; Deut 30:6). God's love for His people transcends generations. And this pivotal point of the story displays the goodness, grace and love of God in one full swoop,
The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master's kinsmen.” - Genesis 24:26-27
This is where the movies cannot get to. They cannot write a love story that brings us to our knees in worship of God's faithfulness. Yet when God places His hands into history to establish a marriage of love, He demonstrates His love and faithfulness to provoke worship. This is no weird coincidence. This is how God works in reality. The working of God towards marriage is a reason for hearty worship. Eventually we'll return to close this idea off completely.
That Narrative Introduction
Movies have opening credits. Song choice is always so crucial. Color combinations and font choice can help set the tone for the movie before the opening lines have been spoken. After the credits there are oft time lengthy narrations that walk us through a compressed history or introduction to the characters of our romantic love story. These parts are important. They are meant to unite us with the characters and confirm some type of emotional attachment to their welfare.
Sadly, there is no perfect analogy for this in our Biblical story. Thankfully there is something better. No, neither Isaac or Rebekah are introduced to us in the narration. Instead we are "introduced" to the Lord, Abraham and his servant,
And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, 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.” The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter. - Genesis 24:2-9
This introduction might seem typical enough. The father wants a good bride for his son. He sets up a system to find that good bride. Launch into the story. But there are a couple elements of this story that require a longer look. For God introduces Himself in this portion of Scripture and uses language that should be special and near to the heart of its audience. This love story was written for Israelites. The Hebrews were the intended "first viewers" to this love story. And we must read this introduction through their eyes.
The first incredible image of note is the command for Abraham to not let Isaac go back into the land. This may seem like a simple command. But it is wrought with application for the people under Moses. This is a command that God would repeat to the king of Israel (Deut 17:16). God had taken Israel out of Egypt for Himself and their rebellion against Him always consisted in a desire to go "back to Egypt" (Num 14:3-4; etc). In many of these cases God's judgment came down up the people for rejecting Him and His provision. Within the context of Genesis, God had called Abraham from the land of His father to a land God desired to give him (sound familiar?). And now it is recorded for us that God commanded Him to not go back nor let his son go back to that land. The symbolism for an Israelite would be obvious. So also would the faithfulness of Abraham would contrast their failures. So instead Abraham sent his servant to redeem and purchase a wife for his son. If at this point the story of the exodus fully clicks (God sending Moses, etc) than we are on the right track to seeing this story through the eyes of a redeemed Israelite.
The second important image is the promise that God's angel shall go before Abraham's servant. This image has the exodus travels and conquest of Canaan all over it (Exo 14:19; 23:20-23). This is the protection God provided for the exodus. This is the preservation of God's people for Himself. This is God's faithfulness. And here these symbols are exemplified and promised for the simple task of acquiring a bride for Isaac. In the fulfillment of this story, Israel was being told that they would become the bride of God and He would love them. It is in these promises and declaration of God's faithfulness that the servant worships God (Gen 24:26-27). How much more should the Israelite worship knowing the application to themselves? And how much more should we worship knowing that this points to the redemption of the church to be the bride of Christ? It is God's Angel that sets forth the great love story. And it is meant to provoke worship from His people.
The Gospel in the Dirt
Now clearly the gospel is exemplified in this whole thing. God's redemption of Israel from Egypt is soteriological. Those saved by Jesus Christ can look back on that story of exodus and see a great narrative on salvation. But now we see similar images and concepts are pre-laid in the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The application to Israel was that God's redemption is also a marriage. Theologically we can also see that this applies to the church (Eph 5:27; Rev 21:2). But that's losing sight of the story for the application. It still is a Biblical love story. Isaac and Rebekah remain real people who experienced the blessings of God's faithfulness in marriage. God's faithfulness to them? Certainly. But more importantly His faithfulness to His servant Abraham. God takes marriage seriously enough to restrict whom the faithful can marry and then send forth His power and faithfulness to fulfill His will in marriage. And he does it to bless generations.
The Lord takes marriage seriously. He takes our marriages seriously. He takes the marriages of our children seriously. He wrote an excellent love story to knock us to our feet in worship. He utilized soteriological language to help us understand both salvation and marriage better. His faithfulness cannot be expressed completely if we diminish either of these remotely. And how will we know if we are diminishing these? Let's look at our marriage. Do they cause us to worship God? Do they exemplify the faithfulness of God such that others worship Him? Do the marriages of our children demonstrate God's faithfulness towards us? Or do they testify that we were not faithful servants like Abraham in the raising of our children?
Some of these questions may be difficult to answer truthfully. And because of that some may desire to focus on the "heavenly application" of this love story. Beware, the patriarchs were dirty. And we've been called to dine with them in the presence of God. I choose to accept that God wants to proclaim His faithfulness in marriage in our human history and I'll take a gospel that gets dirty. And if I'm going to take that gospel seriously, I must begin to take marriage as seriously as God does.