This is a story of the families known as the patriarchs: Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob. We now call them the fathers of our faith, and along with them come the mothers of our faith: Abraham’s wife Sarah, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel. These families are not perfect. In fact, they rival both great opera and soap opera for dysfunction, pain, and fraught relationships – much like our own families. But this story, the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, is one of faithfulness and hope.
First, some background: in the ancient world Near East, finding a suitable wife for his offspring, especially the heir, is one of a patriarch’s most crucial responsibilities. In the world of Genesis, there was no belief in afterlife; immortality instead lay in progeny.
It was also crucial that Isaac’s wife be from the same community. The practice of marrying within one’s community or tribe is called endogamy, as opposed to exogamy, in which one marries outside the community. Exogamy (marrying outside) is practised by groups with a strong sense of identity, who are not threatened by change. This describes neither Abraham’s family nor the later nation of Israel. Abraham had long ago left his homeland, called by God into the land of Canaan, which is roughly present-day Israel, and when he went down into Canaan, Abraham brought with him a new faith, a faith in this God named Yahweh, a God who was not worshipped by any of his new Canaanite neighbours. God then established a covenant with Abraham, promising that his progeny would be a new nation; that they would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert. If Abraham’s son marries a Canaanite woman, she will bring her own religion and her own gods, and Isaac will be tempted to stray from sole worship of Yahweh, which puts the covenant at risk. Isaac has to marry a woman from Abraham’s own family.
Abraham is now living near Hebron, a city that still exists today, at the southern end of the West Bank, but his family is back in Mesopotamia, around the area where Turkey and Syria and Iraq meet. So he entrusts his servant with camels and wealth to make the journey to find a suitable bride. The servant makes the journey, and when he comes to the city, he needs to figure out a search process for a suitable bride. It’s interesting that God, who is active and in direct communication with the family of Abraham throughout the book of Genesis, does not speak directly in this story. I’ll return to that later, but want to bookmark it now.
Acting without direct instruction from God, the servant is left to his own devices for a search process, and so he asks for a sign as divine guidance. The servant prays for a sign that the young woman whom he asks for water will not only give him water, but also water to his camels.
Now the camels are the key point on which the story turns: watering them is the central criterion, and it’s important. He doesn’t ask that she be beautiful, although she turns out to be. He doesn’t ask that she first identify herself as being from a certain family, although this will be important. The most fundamentally important qualification of which the servant can think is that she offer to draw water for the camels.
This wasn’t put into perspective for me until it was pointed out in my research sources that camels are thirsty creatures and can drink an enormous amount of water! Does anyone want to take a guess as to how much water a camel can drink? I have the number in both litres and gallons, so pick the measurement of your choice. Go ahead and shout out some guesses!
The answer is 20 gallons, which is 76 litres. The average car has a gas capacity of 45-65 litres. A camel can hold more fluid than a full tank of gas – and there are ten of them. We’re talking 200 gallons, or 760 litres! To put that into an everyday perspective, if you picture a 4 litre jug of milk, it would take 190 of those to fully water ten camels.
Not only that, but the well we’re talking about is not a vertical shaft with a bucket attached to a rope: it’s at the the bottom of an inclined slope. Fetching water from this well requires descending to it and ascending from it. So when Rebecca waters ten camels, she is not languidly draped over a picturesque fairy tale well, robes flowing romantically, gracefully lowering and raising a bucket. Nope: Rebecca is gittin’ ‘er done. She is strong, she is active, and she is no doubt sweating.
Earlier in the story (v. 19-20), while she’s drawing the water, Rebecca is described as hurrying and running. This speed echoes an earlier story in Genesis about Abraham, in which he is visited by strangers (who turn out to be angels), and he is described in similar terms: he hurries to meet them and runs to arrange their refreshment. It is this same hospitality, this generosity, this thoughtfulness that marks Rebecca not only as a good wife, but as the woman who will act in a way that will fulfil God’s purposes.
A caveat: there are a couple things this is not about. This is not about women’s function being only to serve others. This is not about any of us burning ourselves out, neglecting our own needs in order to fulfil those of others. This is about the willingness to show up in the moment and say “Yes” to an unexpected request. That is the the mark of being ready to take part in the work of God: the work of God in this story being the continuation of the family of Abraham, and it is the same willingness that Jesus’ mother Mary displays in the New Testament when she consents to bear a child; a willingness that God asks of men and women.
So what does this mean for us – we who are unlikely to encounter thirsty camels?
I think this story is about one of the simplest and hardest things: saying “yes”.
Earlier I pointed out that God neither speaks nor acts directly in this story. Instead, God is at work in the small interactions between people. This story reminds us both that God is always present, and that working with God and building the world God envisions can take place in the most simple, day-to-day interactions. What is required of us, in order to take part in God’s workings in the world, is to notice the needs of those around us, and respond.
It’s really simple.
And it can be really hard.
Life is demanding: the requirements of day to day life can feel relentless, leaving no time to see outside the next thing on our list. But I think what this story shows is that it doesn’t take grandiose visions, great social movements, or large-scale planning to be part of God’s work. Instead, it takes a willingness to respond on a very small scale to very immediate needs.
We live in a broken, hurting world, and sometimes we are broken and hurting ourselves. There are so many needs – people sleeping in our streets, the suicide rates of aboriginal teens, the pollution of African nations by oil companies – that they can easily overwhelm us. But they are there, and while we are none of us God, and we are none of us required to save the world, something is still required of us.
I get very uncomfortable when I ponder this, because it can seem a short step from saying “something is required of me” to “I have to act a certain way in order to earn God’s love”. That is not what I am saying. The challenge is to find the middle ground between “it’s all up to me” – which it isn’t – and “I can’t do anything” – which I can.
I can treat the faceless customer service rep on the phone as a human being. I can tell the young woman in the hijab how much I like her shoes. I can check whether the scruffy guy on the bus with his head between his knees is okay. I can keep my eyes open to the world around me and see the humanity. Or I look to the northwestern Ontario small town in which my grandmother lived for examples: it’s the neighbour who mowed her lawn, the friend who dropped off an extra Thanksgiving dinner.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God establishes a covenant with the people of Israel: God is our God, and we are God’s people. God promises to be there for us, never abandoning God’s people, and in return, we are asked to keep God’s ways. Keeping God’s ways is never about rigid rules. Keeping God’s ways is about caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – the vulnerable and the outsider. Doing this will change us.
And so when I say that something is required of us, what this really means is that we are invited to be changed. We are invited to leave behind our fear, our smallness, our walls, and embrace the uncertainty of a life in God – not to earn divine approval, but for our own sake. We are accepted, loved, and wanted as we are, and we are invited to the freedom and life of keeping God’s ways: a God who dreams of a world of justice, mercy, and kindness. The path to that world is built one small step at a time, one small “yes” at a time.
We will fail. We will walk away from the well, too busy, tired, or cranky for the camels. But the beckoning is always there: the beckoning to build a world we can only imagine, one thirsty camel at a time.
May it be so.