Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Modernity as the background to the story of Rebekah and the servant

Why does Abraham not want Isaac to marry a Canaanite? Is it, as Lawrence Schiffman suggests that they were too modern? Is G-d a conservative? Is modernity always problematic?  I think you can't have it both ways. Abraham was called out from his clan and he cannot go back, nor can Isaac go back, yet there is no suitable wife in the new place. Perhaps there is an allegory brewing. It's not as simple as a good-clan bad-clan theme.

This week in the lectionary we finish chapter 24 of Genesis, the story of getting Isaac a wife. But we read only bits of it: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67. So what is it that is left out?

The servant is already in Aram and has already met Rebekah at the spring / well. We miss all that and the bit where he refuses to eat till he has told his story. We skip his repetition in his story of the possibility that the woman might not want to come with him. We skip the bit where the mother requests that the lass remain a few days, at least 10. One question I am wondering about is what sort of decision-making protocol was there in the household of Rebekah?

In the first part of the story, Rebekah has a considerable interaction with the stranger at the spring - and it is a full autonomy that she seems to exercise. She has considerable generosity and strength also. This speaks to a certain security as well as independence.

I am about to do the translation and will make notes on this question...

The first thing I notice is that the music begins as a reprise when the servant comes to tell the story of the promise he had to swear. But continues with some variation on the music and the words. The servant makes a strong case for the authority of Abraham. Perhaps this is part of the decision protocol. Here you are giving up a young woman to a stranger on the basis of words (but also on the basis of visible gold and all those camels). The servant wants to become free from his oath but this requires the decision of the family to allow the authority of the oath, as measured in the conversation and the sequence of secret prayer and Rebekah's response, to be obeyed. (The 'faith' of Rebekah is not mentioned in Hebrews 11.)

Bruggemann's Genesis points out some obvious characteristics of this story through the use of repeating words: 1 the wrapping of the sections in blessing. 2 the emergence of the prosperity theme. [Did Spock have a hand in this passage?] 3 the emphasis on loving-kindness and truth (he uses steadfast loyalty and fidelity). 4 The leadership of God in the way. While lead is a rare word, it occurs twice in the passage, way is a common word but finds an appropriate recurrence here also. (www.stepbible.org has a nice way of highlighting single repeated words in a passage.)

It is perhaps worth noting also that Abraham uses a different word for kin as opposed to the repeated word in the second half of the story rendered clan. The scope of kin and family is perhaps to be noted. I wonder how all this might fit a looming metaphorical treatment - such as marrying into the household of faith. The grand metaphor is this: Abraham is like the Father, Isaac, received back from the dead, is like the Anointed son, the chosen beloved who inherits everything, and the aged unnamed servant is like the Spirit bringing the chosen bride to the one to be comforted for the loss of his mother (see how Paul treats Sarah in Galatians). Yes, Virginia, we do apply texts strangely sometimes - but not as if the original writer intended it so, only that the interpreter of Scripture (e.g. a reader of John 3:35 or Paul himself, the writer of Galatians 4:24-25) sometimes takes some radical liberties. (Notice how much 'at one' Abraham and the servant are - he has given all things into his hand, and how the servant explains that Abraham will give Isaac everything that he has. In the first part of the story, it is Abraham who is the servant's lord. In the last verse, it is Isaac.)

Back to the story - and the freedom of the clan to decide. It is more than that the woman might not want to come, the servant makes it clear that if the clan refuses to give, then he also is released (lit. innocent) from his oath. Notice how this extends the original question that the servant asked of Abraham. Notice also that this is omitted from the lectionary selection. How would this bear up in the allegory? If the church refused her bridal aspect to the Son who died and was raised from the dead, then the servant, the Spirit, is free from the promise to the Father. Give that some thought. Do we refuse the journey? Is this the sin against the Spirit? It is not good that the lectionary leaves this out.

When the servant relates his prayer to the assembled clan he does not use the term virgin, whom no man had known, (how would he know this?) but the term for a young woman. I can't say I like the ESV or KJV here (Genesis 24:43). They appear to me to be theological translations such that one would identify Mary as the bride, symbolizing the church being brought to her Lord. How, in my analogy, does the Spirit relate the nature of the mandate to individuals or to the church? Just a question - give it consideration.

Now the servant and Laban bargain. Like the bargaining for the burial plot for Sarah, it doesn't look like bargaining. These verses are not in the lesson either. More's the pity, for in the allegory, the bargaining is for the bride. Who is the stronger, Laban and Bethuel or the servant, the world or the Spirit? The world says - what can we do! This is from God - take her and go. But it is a feint. The world really wants to benefit from the transaction. So the servant lays out treasure for everyone and they stay the night. Even in the morning there is still a departure protocol. The servant must ask to be sent on his way. The mother then asks for a delay in the daughter's leaving. Ultimately, the decision is left to Rebekah. Is 24 hours sufficient notice for such a journey - just one day? Notice the ornamentation when the lasses finally ride the camels - you've got to look at the pdf's of the music.

But it is such a day - like the literary 24 uses of the word hour in John's Gospel. Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day, say Jesus. And here in this story we have another day - short yet long as the groom (whom we have been told about) awaits his bride.

Ultimately we must fade back into the real story of a distant man and his son in a foreign land finding a wife from his clan and her being blessed to great fruitfulness. She gives birth to twins - Esau and Jacob. These brothers are still at odds today.  And Rebekah's children do possess the gate even of those who hate them - what responsibility (See this post from Larry Behrendt at Jewish-Christian intersections).

[Aside: some years ago when I was working in Jamaica, I asked my African son what he would like me to bring him home. He replied - bring me home a wife. Unfortunately, I did not have rings and bracelets and sufficient gold and garments, not to mention the camels, to fulfill his request.]

On that note I conclude that this post is long enough. What do you think of this story? The music will get to the usual place (it is partly there now - I have a dozen verses to go). Translation is a slow process. 67 verses of Genesis is the longest bit of Torah that I have tried yet.

Thanks to Tim Bulkeley of the five minute bible and sansblogue for the pointers to the step bible and the online commentaries - useful resources both.